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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“Without mysteries, life would be very dull indeed”*…

Colonoscopies are a right of passage into late middle-age. One dreads getting a “surprise”– the finding of a polyp. But one doesn’t anticipate other kinds of surprise…

Doctors in Missouri were baffled to spot a fly inside a man’s intestines during a routine colon screening.

Images taken during the colonoscopy and published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology show the intact fly inside the man’s colon.

Matthew Bechtold, the chief of Gastroenterology at the University of Missouri, told The Independent that he had prodded the fly and confirmed it was dead.

The 63-year-old patient told doctors that he had only consumed clear liquids the day before the procedure and had no idea how the fly had gotten into his colon.

He said he had eaten pizza and lettuce for dinner two days before the procedure but did not remember a fly being in his food.

The finding was described as “a very rare colonoscopy finding and mystery on how the intact fly found its way to the transverse colon.”…

Wonder never cease: “Bizarre Discovery of Intact Housefly in Man’s Intestines Shocks Doctors,” in @ScienceAlert, via @BoingBoing.

* Charles de Lint


As we investigate intrusive insects, we might spare a thought for Seymour Benzer; he died on this date in 2007. A physicist, molecular biologist, and behavioral geneticist, he developed a method for determining the detailed structure of viral genes, did much to elucidate the nature of genetic anomalies (called nonsense mutations), and identified mutant genes useful for studying Creutzfeld-Jacob (CJ) disease and other human brain degenerative disorders… all using the ubiquitous cousin of the housefly– the fruit fly– as a research subject.

Benzer was awarded the National Medal of Science (in 1982), among many other major awards and recognitions.

Benzer with a Drosophila model, 1974 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 30, 2023 at 1:00 am

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”*…

The Canting Academy is a classic linguistic guide to the criminal underworld of 17th-century London

That seminal semanticist Samuel Johnson suggested, “dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” From “unabridged” to “slanguage,” Madeline Kripke’s library of lexicons is a logophile’s heaven (or hell)…

Madeline Kripke’s first dictionary was a copy of Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her when she was a fifth grader in Omaha in the early 1950s. By the time of her death in 2020, at age 76, she had amassed a collection of dictionaries that occupied every flat surface of her two-bedroom Manhattan apartment—and overflowed into several warehouse spaces. Many believe that this chaotic, personal library is the world’s largest compendium of words and their usage.

“We don’t really know how many books it is,” says Michael Adams, a lexicographer and chair of the English department at Indiana University Bloomington. More than 1,500 boxes, with vague labels such as “Kripke documents” or “Kripke: 17 books,” arrived at the school’s Lilly Library on two tractor-trailers in late 2021. The delivery was accompanied by a nearly 2,000-page catalog detailing some 6,000 volumes. But that’s only a fraction of the total. In summer 2023, the library hired a group of students to simply open each box and list its contents. By the fall, their count stood at about 9,700. “And they’ve got a long way to go,” says Adams. “20,000 sounds like a pretty good estimate.”

“This is my favorite wall,” Madeline Kripke told Narratively reporter Daniel Kreiger when he visited her West Village apartment in 2013. She shined a flashlight on glass-fronted shelves jammed with dictionaries full of the slanguage and cryptolect of small and likely overlooked communities. Kreiger listed some of the groups represented at that time, among them cowboys and flappers, mariners and gamblers, soldiers, circus workers, and thieves.

Among the first tomes Adams pulled from the boxes was a well-known example of the slang genre: The Canting Academy. This 17th-century dictionary by Richard Head is a guide to “cant,” the jargon of London’s criminal class or, as the subtitle to the second edition puts it, “The Mysterious and Villainous Practices Of that wicked Crew, commonly known by the Names of Hectors, Treppaners, Gults, &c.” (Adams wonders if a first edition is also hidden in the banker’s boxes.) With The Canting Academy, one can learn to translate the cant of the “priggs” (“all sorts of thieves”) to English: “lour” to “money,” “pannam” to “bread,” “lage” to “water.” Most of the language is indecipherable without this key, but Adams notes some usages that are common today. “To plant” something is, in centuries-old cant or modern-day English, “to lay, place, or hide.”

Much of what Adams has unpacked has a far less storied (and pricey) past, but, he says, the quirky and unexpected volumes in Kripke’s collection might be the most valuable to future lexicographers and historians. A bright red pamphlet with a doodle of heart on the cover might seem disposable, but it is an artifact of a particular place and time, Adams says. “Dictionaries are made by people, so they’re not just language books,” he says, “they’re culture books.”

Printed in 1962 as a marketing tool for a CBS sitcom, that slim pamphlet featuring a big heart around the faces of two 20-something actors is Dobie Gillis: Teenage Slanguage Dictionary, filled with “teen-age antics and terms.” It’s the type of thing that might have been stuffed into a cereal box or inserted in a teen magazine, says Adams. “I’m pretty sure that most people threw the copy they had away, and so this one is a fairly rare item that says something important about the representation of teen language and culture in the 1950s and 1960s.” Thanks to Kripke’s copy we know that this, at least according to the marketers behind The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was the era of the “keen teen” (“well-liked person”), the “cream puff” (“conceited person”), the “meatball” (“a dull guy”), and the “mathematician” (“teen who can put two and two together and get SEX”).

Kripke—“the mistress of slang,” in the words of one colleague—dedicated decades of her life to curating this collection of words, including countless ones we might like to forget. When she passed away without a will, the fate of her overwhelming library, plus a trove of documents on the history of dictionary making, was uncertain. Auctioning it off in lots could have brought the highest bids, but Kripke’s family worked in conjunction with the lexicographic community to preserve what Adams calls “her legacy.” That it was ultimately purchased in total by Indiana University Bloomington, a state university that committed to making the works accessible to the public, seems in keeping with the way Kripke herself viewed the collection, as a resource for the curious.

“You would go to see her in her Village apartment, and it was filled from top to bottom and side to side with books,” Adams says. It would have taken some digging but, “she would have the book that you need to see out for you and always some other specimens, too.”…

The Low Down on the Greatest Dictionary Collection in the World,” in @atlasobscura.

* Steven Wright


As we look it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1660, at Gresham College in London, that twelve men, including Christopher WrenRobert BoyleJohn Wilkins, and Sir Robert Moray decided to found a “Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning” to promote “experimental philosophy” (which became science-as-we-know-it). Six months later, Robert Hooke‘s first publication, a pamphlet on capillary action, was read to the group.

The Society subsequently petitioned King Charles II to recognize it and to make a royal grant of incorporation. The Royal Charter, which was passed in July, 1662 created the Royal Society of London.

In 1665, the society introduced the world’s first journal exclusively devoted to science in 1665, Philosophical Transactions (and in so doing originated the peer review process now widespread in scientific journals). Its founding editor was Henry Oldenburg, the society’s first secretary.  It remains the oldest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. 

Title page of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (source)

“A proof tells us where to concentrate our doubts”*…

Andrew Granville at work

Number theorist Andrew Granville on what mathematics really is, on why objectivity is never quite within reach, and on the role that AI might play…

… What is a mathematical proof? We tend to think of it as a revelation of some eternal truth, but perhaps it is better understood as something of a social construct.

Andrew Granville, a mathematician at the University of Montreal, has been thinking about that a lot recently. After being contacted by a philosopher about some of his writing, “I got to thinking about how we arrive at our truths,” he said. “And once you start pushing at that door, you find it’s a vast subject.”

“How mathematicians go about research isn’t generally portrayed well in popular media. People tend to see mathematics as this pure quest, where we just arrive at great truths by pure thought alone. But mathematics is about guesses — often wrong guesses. It’s an experimental process. We learn in stages…

Quanta spoke with Granville about the nature of mathematical proof — from how proofs work in practice to popular misconceptions about them, to how proof-writing might evolve in the age of artificial intelligence…

[excerpts for that interview follow…]

How mathematicians go about research isn’t generally portrayed well in popular media. People tend to see mathematics as this pure quest, where we just arrive at great truths by pure thought alone. But mathematics is about guesses — often wrong guesses. It’s an experimental process. We learn in stages…

The culture of mathematics is all about proof. We sit around and think, and 95% of what we do is proof. A lot of the understanding we gain is from struggling with proofs and interpreting the issues that come up when we struggle with them…

The main point of a proof is to persuade the reader of the truth of an assertion. That means verification is key. The best verification system we have in mathematics is that lots of people look at a proof from different perspectives, and it fits well in a context that they know and believe. In some sense, we’re not saying we know it’s true. We’re saying we hope it’s correct, because lots of people have tried it from different perspectives. Proofs are accepted by these community standards.

Then there’s this notion of objectivity — of being sure that what is claimed is right, of feeling like you have an ultimate truth. But how can we know we’re being objective? It’s hard to take yourself out of the context in which you’ve made a statement — to have a perspective outside of the paradigm that has been put in place by society. This is just as true for scientific ideas as it is for anything else…

[Granville runs through a history of the proof, from Aristotle, through Euclid, to Hilbert, then Russel and Whitehead, ending with Gödel…]

To discuss mathematics, you need a language, and a set of rules to follow in that language. In the 1930s, Gödel proved that no matter how you select your language, there are always statements in that language that are true but that can’t be proved from your starting axioms. It’s actually more complicated than that, but still, you have this philosophical dilemma immediately: What is a true statement if you can’t justify it? It’s crazy.

So there’s a big mess. We are limited in what we can do.

Professional mathematicians largely ignore this. We focus on what’s doable. As Peter Sarnak likes to say, “We’re working people.” We get on and try to prove what we can…

[Granville then turns to computers…]

We’ve moved to a different place, where computers can do some wild things. Now people say, oh, we’ve got this computer, it can do things people can’t. But can it? Can it actually do things people can’t? Back in the 1950s, Alan Turing said that a computer is designed to do what humans can do, just faster. Not much has changed.

For decades, mathematicians have been using computers — to make calculations that can help guide their understanding, for instance. What AI can do that’s new is to verify what we believe to be true. Some terrific developments have happened with proof verification. Like [the proof assistant] Lean, which has allowed mathematicians to verify many proofs, while also helping the authors better understand their own work, because they have to break down some of their ideas into simpler steps to feed into Lean for verification.

But is this foolproof? Is a proof a proof just because Lean agrees it’s one? In some ways, it’s as good as the people who convert the proof into inputs for Lean. Which sounds very much like how we do traditional mathematics. So I’m not saying that I believe something like Lean is going to make a lot of errors. I’m just not sure it’s any more secure than most things done by humans…

Perhaps it could assist in creating a proof. Maybe in five years’ time, I’ll be saying to an AI model like ChatGPT, “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this somewhere. Would you check it out?” And it’ll come back with a similar statement that’s correct.

And then once it gets very, very good at that, perhaps you could go one step further and say, “I don’t know how to do this, but is there anybody who’s done something like this?” Perhaps eventually an AI model could find skilled ways to search the literature to bring tools to bear that have been used elsewhere — in a way that a mathematician might not foresee.

However, I don’t understand how ChatGPT can go beyond a certain level to do proofs in a way that outstrips us. ChatGPT and other machine learning programs are not thinking. They are using word associations based on many examples. So it seems unlikely that they will transcend their training data. But if that were to happen, what will mathematicians do? So much of what we do is proof. If you take proofs away from us, I’m not sure who we become…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Why Mathematical Proof Is a Social Compact,” in @QuantaMagazine.

Morris Kline


As we add it up, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Edward G. Begle; he was born on this date in 1914. A mathematician who was an accomplished topologist, he is best remembered for his role as the director of the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), the primary group credited for developing what came to be known as The New Math (a pedagogical response to Sputnik, taught in American grade schools from the late 1950s through the 1970s)… which will be well-known to (if not necessarily fondly recalled by) readers of a certain age.


“The lovely flowers embarrass me, they make me regret I am not a bee”*…

… But then, what would it be like to be a bee? In the tradition of Thomas Nagel (bats), Peter Godfrey-Smith (octopuses), and Kristin Andrews (crabs), Lars Chittka explores…

Understanding the minds of alien life-forms is not easy, but if you relish the challenge, you don’t have to travel to outer space to find it. Alien minds are right here, all around you. You won’t necessarily find them in large-brained mammals—whose psychology is sometimes studied for the sole purpose of finding human-ness in slightly modified form. With insects such as bees, there is no such temptation: neither the societies of bees nor their individual psychology are remotely like those of humans (figure 1.1). Indeed, their perceptual world is so distinct from ours, governed by completely different sense organs, and their lives are ruled by such different priorities, that they might be accurately regarded as aliens from inner space.

Figure 1.1. The strangeness of the bee’s world

Insect societies may look to us like smoothly oiled machines in which the individual plays the part of a mindless cog, but a superficial alien observer might come to the same conclusion about a human society. Over the course of this book, it will be my goal to convince you that each individual bee has a mind—that it has an awareness of the world around it and of its own knowledge, including autobiographical memories; an appreciation of the outcomes of its own actions; and the capacity for basic emotions and intelligence—key ingredients of a mind. And these minds are supported by beautifully elaborate brains. As we will see, insect brains are anything but simple. Compared to a human brain with its 86 billion nerve cells, a bee’s brain may have only about a million. But each one of these cells has a finely branched structure that in complexity may resemble a full-grown oak tree. Each nerve cell can make connections with 10,000 other ones—hence there may be more than a billion such connection points in a bee brain—and each of these connections is at least potentially plastic, alterable by individual experience. These elegantly miniaturized brains are much more than input-output devices; they are biological prediction machines, exploring possibilities. And they are spontaneously active in the absence of any stimulation, even during the night.

To explore what might be inside the mind of a bee, it is helpful to take a first-person bee perspective, and consider which aspects of the world would matter to you, and how. I invite you to picture what it’s like to be a bee. To start, imagine you have an exoskeleton—like a knight’s armor. However, there isn’t any skin underneath: your muscles are directly attached to the armor. You’re all hard shell, soft core. You also have an inbuilt chemical weapon, designed as an injection needle that can kill any animal your size and be extremely painful to animals a thousand times your size—but using it may be the last thing you do, since it can kill you, too. Now imagine what the world looks like from inside the cockpit of a bee.

You have 300o vision, and your eyes process information faster than any human’s. All your nutrition comes from flowers, each of which provides only a tiny meal, so you often have to travel many miles to and between flowers—and you’re up against thousands of competitors to harvest the goodies. The range of colors you can see is broader than a human’s and includes ultraviolet light, as well as sensitivity for the direction in which light waves oscillate. You have sensory superpowers, such as a magnetic compass. You have protrusions on your head, as long as an arm, which can taste, smell, hear, and sense electric fields (figure 1.2). And you can fly. Given all this, what’s in your mind?…

Further to an earlier post, “What it’s like to be a bee,” from @LChittka and @PrincetonUPress, via @TheBrowser.

* Emily Dickinson


As we buzz, we might spare a thought for a successful entrepreneur whose empire depended on bees (and their capacity to pollinate plants), Washington Atlee Burpee; he died on this date in 1915. A horticulturist, we turned his childhood interest in the selective breeding of poultry, and his passion for research in the genetics of breeding into Burpee Seeds, the world’s largest mail-order seed company.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 26, 2023 at 1:00 am

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order”*…

“The Wholeness of Nature Reflected in the Mirror of Art”, the macrocosm showing the human body as the world soul, from the first volume of Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi . . . Historia, 1617 — Source.

Between 1617 and 1621 the English physician and polymath Robert Fludd published his masterpiece Utriusque Cosmi . . . Historia, a two-volume work packed with over sixty intricate engravings. Urszula Szulakowska looks at the philosophical and theological ideas behind the extraordinary images found in the first volume, an exploration of the macrocosm of the universe and spiritual realm…

Robert Fludd was a respected English physician (of Welsh origins) employed at the court of King James I of England. He was a prolific writer of vast, multi-volume encyclopaedias in which he discussed a universal range of topics from magical practices — such as alchemy, astrology, kabbalism, and fortune-telling — to radical theological thinking concerning the interrelation of God with the natural and human worlds. However, he also proudly displayed his grasp of practical knowledge, such as mechanics, architecture, military fortifications, armaments, military manoeuvres, hydrology, musical theory and musical instruments, mathematics, geometry, optics, and the art of drawing, as well as chemistry and medicine. Fludd used the common metaphor for the arts as being the “ape of Nature”, a microcosmic form of how the universe itself functioned.

Fludd’s most famous work is the History of the Two Worlds (Utriusque Cosmi . . . Historia, 1617-21) published in two volumes by Theodore de Bry in Oppenheim. The two worlds under discussion are those of the Microcosm of human life on earth and the Macrocosm of the universe (which included the spiritual realm of the Divine).

Fludd himself was a staunch member of the Anglican Church. He was educated in the medical profession at St. John’s College in Oxford. At the turn of the seventeenth century, he set out for an extended period of travel on the continent. He spent a winter with some Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order deeply opposed to Protestantism who, nevertheless, tutored Fludd on magical practices. Fludd, however, always claimed to have worked out the theological and magical systems in his first volume of the Utriusque Cosmi . . . Historia (1617) during his undergraduate days at Oxford. In this work Fludd devised a lavishly illustrated cosmology based on the chemical theory of Paracelsus, in which the materials of the universe were separated out of chaos by God who acted in the manner of a laboratory alchemist…

All of Fludd’s treatises were lavishly illustrated with extraordinary engravings, unique in their form and subject matter, which have the visionary quality of a genuine spiritual seer and which exerted an influence on his contemporary occultists such as Michael Maier, Jacob Boehme, and Johannes Mylius. Fludd himself designed these images and they were engraved by the artisans employed at his publishers. (Some of his own original drawings still exist for the first volume of the Utriusque Cosmi . . . Historia, 1617)…

Illustration of the “cosmic lyre”, from the first volume of Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, 1617 — Source.

Read on for more explanation and many more mesmerizing images. A 17th century “theory of everything”: “Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine,” in @PublicDomainRev.

* Carl Jung


As we think holistically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that our perspective was shifted in a different kind of way: Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species.  Actually, on that day he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life; the title was shortened to the one we know with the sixth edition in 1872.

Title page of the 1859 edition


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