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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*…

 

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If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

[Image above: source]

* Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

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As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

Ernest_Everett_Just source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.”*…

 

complexity

A couple of weeks ago, we considered the human urge to find significance, meaning in everyday occurrences: “All mystical experience is coincidence; and vice versa, of course.” Today, we consider the same phenomena from a more mathematical point-of-view…

Was it a chance encounter when you met that special someone or was there some deeper reason for it? What about that strange dream last night—was that just the random ramblings of the synapses of your brain or did it reveal something deep about your unconscious? Perhaps the dream was trying to tell you something about your future. Perhaps not. Did the fact that a close relative developed a virulent form of cancer have profound meaning or was it simply a consequence of a random mutation of his DNA?

We live our lives thinking about the patterns of events that happen around us. We ask ourselves whether they are simply random, or if there is some reason for them that is uniquely true and deep. As a mathematician, I often turn to numbers and theorems to gain insight into questions like these. As it happens, I learned something about the search for meaning among patterns in life from one of the deepest theorems in mathematical logic. That theorem, simply put, shows that there is no way to know, even in principle, if an explanation for a pattern is the deepest or most interesting explanation there is. Just as in life, the search for meaning in mathematics knows no bounds…

Noson Yanofsky on what math can teach us about finding order in our chaotic lives.

* Ian Fleming

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As we consider the odds, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Johann Bernoulli; he was born on this date in 1667.  A member of the mathematically-momentous Bernoulli family, Johann (also known as Jean or John) discovered the exponential calculus and (with Leibniz and Huygens) the equation of the catenary.  Still, he be best remembered as teacher and mentor of Leonhard Euler.

220px-Johann_Bernoulli2 source

 

Written by LW

August 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Have pity on them all, for it is we who are the real monsters”*…

 

ardam-cryptozoology

The International Cryptozoology Museum is smaller than my apartment. It’s a big apartment, but it’s an even smaller museum.

The museum is located in a red-brick former industrial building in Portland, Maine. It shares a wall with Big J’s Chicken Shack, and so the International Cryptozoology Museum — the only museum in the world dedicated to the study and promotion of cryptozoology — smells wonderfully, overwhelmingly, of fried chicken…

Officially, cryptozoology is “the study of unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated.”

The International Cryptozoology Museum offers a slightly different definition. For the ICM, the discipline is “an exciting field that studies hidden and unconfirmed legendary animals, as a means to discover new species.”

The definition from the Oxford English Dictionary looks backwards. The animals are disputed and unsubstantiated. Their existence has not been proven. The ICM’s definition looks forward. The animals are hiding. Their discovery is imminent. There is something new to be found. The animals, or, more exactly, the cryptids — we’re talking Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Dover Demon, the Jersey Devil — they’re out there.

The International Cryptozoology Museum is a place of hope…

The search for surreptitious species at “Real Toads at the International Cryptozoology Museum.”  Visit the museum here.

* Bernard Heuvelmans (the father of cryptozoology and founder of the International Society of Cryptozoology), On the Track of Unknown Animals

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As we adumbrate the unfamiliar, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

 source

 

Written by LW

July 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“On the geological time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about deep time”*…

 

new geological era

The official history of Earth has a new chapter – and we are in it.

Geologists have classified the last 4,200 years as being a distinct age in the story of our planet.

They are calling it the Meghalayan Age, the onset of which was marked by a mega-drought that crushed a number of civilisations worldwide.

The International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the famous diagram depicting the timeline for Earth’s history (seen on many classroom walls) will be updated [as above]…

More at “Welcome to the Meghalayan Age – a new phase in history.”

But lest one think that a move like this is without controversy, consider this professional reaction:

“What the fuck is the Meghalayan?” asked Ben van der Pluijm, a geologist.

Whatever the Meghalayan is, we live in it now…

More at “Geology’s Timekeepers Are Feuding.”

* John McPhee

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As we take sides, we might recall that it was exactly 75 years ago today, on this date in 1943, that Los Angeles had it’s first major attack of smog:

On July 26, 1943 a “gas attack” hit the city of Los Angeles.

Here’s how Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly described this dark day in Angeleno history in the first line of their essential book, “Smogtown“: “The beast you couldn’t stab fanned its poison across the waking downtown.” The “beast” was smog…  [source]

smoggy-civic-center

The L.A. Civic Center in a 40’s smog cloud

source

 

Written by LW

July 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

“In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy I can read a little”*…

 

shakespeare science

 

Shakespeare explores the philosophical, psychological, and cultural impact of many more scientific fields besides human anatomy, reflecting poetically on theories about germs, atoms, matter, falling bodies, planetary motion, heliocentrism, alchemy, the humors, algebra, Arabic numerals, Pythagorean geometry, the number zero, and the infinite. The inquiries that drove Renaissance science, and the universe it disclosed, are deeply integrated into Shakespeare’s poetic worlds.

Until relatively recently, Shakespeare’s contact with the scientific world has gone largely unnoticed both among scholars and general audiences. Perhaps Shakespeare scholars and audiences don’t notice the way he takes up science because they are unfamiliar with much of the science he was exposed to, while most scientists don’t see Shakespeare as valuable for reflecting on science because they assume he was unfamiliar with it. Usually, even when readers are made aware of Shakespeare’s references to this or that scientific subject — perhaps Hamlet’s reference to infinity or Lear’s allusions to atomism — these are treated as little more than interesting artifacts, window-dressing to Shakespeare’s broader human concerns.

A small but growing number of scholars are now taking up the connection between Shakespeare and science. And, spurred perhaps by science fiction, by the ways that science factors in the works of key late-modern writers such as Nabokov, Pynchon, and Wallace, and by the rise of scientific themes in contemporary literary fiction, a growing number of readers are aware that writers can and do take up science, and many are interested in what they do with it.

When we familiarize ourselves with the history of science, we see the imaginative worlds Shakespeare creates to demonstrate science’s power to shape our self-understanding, and the power of the literary arts to shape our response to science. We also see that Shakespeare was remarkably prescient about the questions that science would raise for our lives. He explores, for example, how we are personally affected by the uncertainties that cosmological science can introduce, or what it means when scientists claim that our first-hand experience is illusory, or how we respond when science probes into matters of the heart…

He was a poet of Copernican astronomy before the telescope, of microbiology before the modern microscope.  What can we learn from the Bard’s vision of cosmic upheaval?  Explore at:  “Shakespeare’s Worlds of Science.”

* Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

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As we put it all into perspective, we might spare a thought for Andreas Libavius; he died on this date in 1616.  A rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Libavius was a celebrated physician and chemist, the author of over 40 works in the fields of logic, theology, physics, medicine, chemistry, pharmacy, and poetry.  At the same time– and in a way that reflected the fuzzy boundary between the emerging empirical sciences and the occult– he was one of the leading alchemical thinkers of his time: his 1597 Alchymia was the first systematic chemistry textbook, in which he showed, for example, that cuprous salt lotions are detectable with ammonia (which causes them to change color to dark blue)… and in which he also described the possibility of transmutation (the conversion of base metals into gold).

220px-Andreas_Libavius source

 

Written by LW

July 25, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn”*…

 

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A new paper, “Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time” aims to see if people of different races, genders, and incomes have become more culturally distant from each other over the past few decades…

The authors use a simple metric for this: how easy is it to predict who you are? For example, if I know your five favorite TV shows, how well does that predict whether you’re male or black or high income? If different groups watched similar shows in the past but now they all watch different shows, this kind of prediction becomes more accurate because we’re moving apart in our tastes. But it turns out we aren’t. The basic conclusion of the paper is that nothing much has happened:

blog_cultural_distance_time

For the most part, these lines are pretty flat. For example, take a look at the red line in the top left panel. It represents the consumption pattern of rich vs. poor, and it’s around 0.9. This means that the rich and poor are very different in the products they buy, but also that they’ve always been very different. The size of the difference, or “cultural distance,” is about the same as it’s always been…

The biggest changes have been in gender issues, party affiliation, religion, and confidence in institutions. This isn’t surprising, nor is the fact that the divergences have been relatively large, since ideology is self-selected. The increasing political polarization of Americans has been a topic of endless discussion over the past decade, and it’s a real thing.

[And] on a less serious side, here are the products [see chart at the head of this post] that most distinguish whether or not you’re white…

Read on for more detail on the ways in which “We’re About as Different From Each Other As We’ve Always Been.”

C.f. also: “What we buy can be used to predict our politics, race or education — sometimes with more than 90 percent accuracy.”

* “The more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.”  ― Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire

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As we note that what’s true latitudinally is arguably also true through time, we might send magical birthday greetings to John Dee, the  mathematician, astronomer, and geographer who was a consultant to Elizabeth I– and who was born on this date in 1527. Dee was a translator of Euclid, and a friend of both Gerardus Mercator and Tycho Brahe; he revolutionized navigation by applying geometry; and he coined the word “Brittannia” and the phrase “British Empire.”  He had a tremendous impact on architecture and theater– and was the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.

“So how come such a significant philosopher– one of very few in a country then considered an intellectual backwater– barely features in British history books?  Because of his notorious links with magic” (observed BBC’s Discover).  Dee was indeed involved (most heavily, toward the end of his life) in the Hermetic Arts: alchemy, astrology, divination, Hermetic philosophy and Rosicrucianism (the Protestant answer to the Jesuits, which Dee founded).  Perhaps most (in)famously, Dee put a hex on the Spanish Armada, a spell widely credited at the time for the misfortunes that befell the Iberian fleet (as readers may recall).

In a way that presaged Isaac Newton, Dee’s work spanned the world’s of science and magic at just the point that those world’s began to separate.

220px-John_Dee_Ashmolean source

 

 

Written by LW

July 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”*…

 

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Does anyone who follows physics doubt it is in trouble? When I say physics, I don’t mean applied physics, material science or what Murray-Gell-Mann called “squalid-state physics.” I mean physics at its grandest, the effort to figure out reality. Where did the universe come from? What is it made of? What laws govern its behavior? And how probable is the universe? Are we here through sheer luck, or was our existence somehow inevitable?

In the 1980s Stephen Hawking and other big shots claimed that physics was on the verge of a “final theory,” or “theory of everything,” that could answer these big questions and solve the riddle of reality. I became a science writer in part because I believed their claims, but by the early 1990s I had become a skeptic. The leading contender for a theory of everything held that all of nature’s particles and forces, including gravity, stem from infinitesimal, stringy particles wriggling in nine or more dimensions.

The problem is that no conceivable experiment can detect the strings or extra dimensions…

John Horgan examines physicist Sabine Hossenfelder‘s claim that desire for beauty and other subjective biases have led physicists astray: “How Physics Lost Its Way.”

* Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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As we contemplate certainty, we might recall that it was on this date in 1595 that Johann Kepler (and here) published Mysterium cosmographicum (Mystery of the Cosmos), in which he described an invisible underlying structure determining the six known planets in their orbits.  Kepler thought as a mathematician, devising a structure based on only five convex regular solids; the path of each planet lay on a sphere separated from its neighbors by touching an inscribed polyhedron.

It was a beautiful, an elegant model– and one that fit the orbital data available at the time.  It was, nonetheless, wrong.

Detailed view of Kepler’s inner sphere

source

 

 

Written by LW

July 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

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