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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being”*…

 

Human skull

A Neanderthal skull shows head trauma, evidence of ancient violence

 

Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern Africa: Homo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?…

More at “Were other humans the first victims of the sixth mass extinction?

* “… so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

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As we wonder about our lost siblings, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Pierre Flourens; he died on this date in 1867.  A physiologist, he was the founder of experimental brain science and a pioneer in anesthesia.  He was the first to demonstrate the general functions of the major portions of the vertebrate brain; more generally, through the study of ablations on vertebrate animals, he was the first to prove that the mind was located in the brain, not the heart (as was then believed).

Ironically, he was a Creationist– an opponent of Darwin and the theory of natural selection.

220px-Pierre_flourens source

 

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

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As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

 

science-philosopher

 

The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…

science-planetary-model

 

A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte

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As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.

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Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Jump!”*…

 

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A young gall midge, no bigger than a rice grain, can go airborne

 

No legs? Not a problem. Some pudgy insect larvae can still jump up to 36 times their body length. Now high-speed video reveals how.

First, a legless, bright orange Asphondylia gall midge larva fastens its body into a fat, lopsided O by meshing together front and rear patches of microscopic fuzz. The rear part of the larva swells, and starts to straighten like a long, overinflating balloon. The fuzzy surfaces then pop apart. Then like a suddenly released spring, the larva flips up and away in an arc of somersaults, researchers report August 8 in the Journal of Experimental Biology

 

 

High-speed film reveals the details of a young gall midge’s loop-and-latch maneuver: “How these tiny insect larvae leap without legs.”

* Van Halen

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As we admire the altitude, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a young chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, while researching the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot in a search for compounds useful in pharmaceuticals, first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).  As it wasn’t immediately promising, he put it aside.  But he revisited his formulation several years later, on April 16, 1943; handling it, he accidentally absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943 (a day now known as “Bicycle Day”) Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, then rode home on a bike– a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  (This is not to be confused with the UN’s World Bicycle Day.)

Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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Written by LW

November 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I think a strong claim can be made that the process of scientific discovery may be regarded as a form of art”*…

 

Science

ChaosInTheBrickyard_00c

ChaosInTheBrickyard_00d

 

Click through for neuroscientist (and accomplished comic artist) Matteo Farinella’s unpacking of a serious issue in the practice of modern science: “Scientific knowledge is drowning in a flood of research.”

* Ernest Rutherford (Nobel laureate and “father of nuclear physics”)

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As we honor abduction, we might spare a thought for a theorist supreme, Claude Lévi-Strauss; he died on this date in 2009.  An anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of Structuralism and Structural Anthropology, he is considered, with James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology.”  Beyond anthropology and sociology, his ideas– Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity”– have influenced many fields in the humanities, including philosophy.

220px-Levi-strauss_260 source

 

 

“It is still an unending source of surprise for me how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a piece of paper can change the course of human affairs”*…

 

blackboard

 

For the last year, Jessica Wynne, a photographer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, has been photographing mathematicians’ blackboards, finding art in the swirling gangs of symbols sketched in the heat of imagination, argument and speculation. “Do Not Erase,” a collection of these images, will be published by Princeton University Press in the fall of 2020…

This is what thought looks like.

Ideas, and ideas about ideas. Suppositions and suspicions about relationships among abstract notions — shape, number, geometry, space — emerging through a fog of chalk dust, preferably of the silky Hagoromo chalk, originally from Japan, now made in South Korea.

In these diagrams, mysteries are being born and solved…

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More (and larger) examples from this photo survey of the blackboards of mathematicians at “Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies.”

* Stanislaw Ulam

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As we scribble “do not erase,” we might spare a thought for Herbert Aaron Hauptman; he died on this date in 2011.  A mathematician, he pioneered and developed a mathematical method that has changed the whole field of chemistry and opened a new era in research in determination of molecular structures of crystallized materials.  Today, Hauptman’s “direct methods,” which he continued to improve and refine, are routinely used to solve complicated structures… work for which he shared the the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

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Written by LW

October 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There is a size at which dignity begins”*…

 

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The spectrometer for the KATRIN experiment, as it works its way through the German town of Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen in 2006 en route to the nearby Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

 

Isaac Asimov dubbed neutrinos “ghost particles.” John Updike immortalized them in verse. They’ve been the subject of several Nobel Prize citations, because these weird tiny particles just keep surprising physicists. And now we have a much better idea of the upper limit of what their rest mass could be, thanks to the first results from the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino experiment (KATRIN) in Germany. Leaders from the experiment announced their results last week at a scientific conference in Japan and posted a preprint to the physics arXiv.

“Knowing the mass of the neutrino will allow scientists to answer fundamental questions in cosmology, astrophysics, and particle physics, such as how the universe evolved or what physics exists beyond the Standard Model,” said Hamish Robertson, a KATRIN scientist and professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington…

Physicists get small: “Weighing in: Physicists cut upper limit on neutrino’s mass in half.”

* Thomas Hardy, “Two on a Tower”

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As we step onto the scales, we might spare a thought for Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck; he died on this date in 1947.  A theoretical physicist, he is best remembered as the originator of quantum theory.  It was his discovery of energy quanta that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.

220px-Max_Planck_1933 source

 

Written by LW

October 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

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