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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Ball

“God help us — for art is long, and life so short”*…


The creation of a homunculus, an artificially made miniature human, from an 1899 edition of Goethe’s Faust

Making life artificially wasn’t as big a deal for the ancients as it is for us. Anyone was supposed to be able to do it with the right recipe, just like baking bread. The Roman poet Virgil described a method for making synthetic bees, a practice known as bougonia, which involved beating a poor calf to death, blocking its nose and mouth, and leaving the carcass on a bed of thyme and cinnamon sticks. “Creatures fashioned wonderfully appear,” he wrote, “first void of limbs, but soon awhir with wings.”

This was, of course, simply an expression of the general belief in spontaneous generation: the idea that living things might arise from nothing within a fertile matrix of decaying matter. Roughly 300 years earlier, Aristotle, in his book On the Generation of Animals, explained how this process yielded vermin, such as insects and mice. No one doubted it was possible, and no one feared it either (apart from the inconvenience); one wasn’t “playing God” by making new life this way.

The furor that has sometimes accompanied the new science of synthetic biology—the attempt to reengineer living organisms as if they were machines for us to tinker with, or even to build them from scratch from the component parts—stems from a decidedly modern construct, a “reverence for life.” In the past, fears about this kind of technological hubris were reserved mostly for proposals to make humans by artificial means—or as the Greeks would have said, by techne, art…

Philip Ball digs into myth, history, and science to untangle the roots of our fears of artificial life: “Man Made: A History of Synthetic Life.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Part One


As we marvel that “it’s alive!,” we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927.  An eminent computer and cognitive scientist– he was awarded both the Turning Prize and the National Medal of Science– McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial Intelligence” to describe the field of which he was a founder.

It was McCarthy’s 1979 article, “Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines” (in which he wrote, “Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance”) that provoked John Searle‘s 1980 disagreement in the form of his famous Chinese Room Argument… provoking a broad debate that continues to this day.




“The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts”*…


Diagram from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878), illustrating a spectrum of elements and forces, spanning from the (outermost) solidness of rock to the (innermost) “spirit”


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

– Lord Kelvin, 1900

Kelvin’s (in)famous assertion, among others, have led to the sense that physics at the fin de siècle was believed by scientists at the time to be on the point of completion. But that could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, at that moment almost anything seemed possible.  At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality.

Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how this turn to the unseen parallels quantum physics (which was, ironically, first proposed by Max Planck in 1900) in “Worlds Without End.”

* Werner Heisenberg


As we recall that all things are relative, we might send bounteous birthday greetings to Charles Alfred Coulson; he was born on this date in 1910.  A mathematician and theoretical chemist, Coulson was a pioneer of the application of the quantum theory of valency to problems of molecular structure, dynamics and reactivity.  He was Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (a position in which he was preceded by E. A. Milne, the mathematician and astrophysicist, and succeeded by Roger Penrose), and was a founder and Director of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute.



Written by LW

December 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

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