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“The heart of science is measurement”*…


In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot (future Chairman of the American National Standards Institute) repeatedly laid down on the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that some of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers could measure the entire length of the bridge in relation to his height. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, the bridge was found to be 364.4 “Smoots” long (plus or minus an εar). The prank quickly became the stuff of legend (to this day, graffiti on the bridge still divides it up into Smoot-based sections) until finally, in 2011, the word smoot was added to the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”…

More exceedingly-specific units of measurement, and the stories behind them: “10 Ridiculously Precise Units of Measurement.”

* Erik Brynjolfsson


As we quantify quantity, we might spare a thought for Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he died on this date in 1990.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)



“Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find”*…


Alchemist Heating a Pot, by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690

Alchemy is one of the most curious subjects in the history of science–it evokes both method and magic in popular imagination. Teniers brilliantly juxtaposes light and shadow in his paintings, leaving the viewer unsure just how illuminating alchemy really is.

Alchemy was practiced in Europe as early as the 1300s and, by the seventeenth century, it had reached in zenith. It was a precursor to modern chemistry, and the methods and instruments that are historically tied to alchemy had a significant impact on the development of scientific tools. (As a historical note, in the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry were extremely fluid scientific practices; many contemporary historians of science opt to refer to the science as chymistry to connote the mutability of the two practices.)

At its very core, alchemy focused on the notion of transmutation–the ability of one element to morph into another, especially the ability to turn elements into gold. (If Rumpelstiltskin had only been so lucky!) In order to understand elements on their most basic level—in order to extrapolate how to transmute one into another—alchemy focused its experimental efforts on the processes of distillation, sublimation, and crystallization and how they affected different materials. Exploring these processes, however, required sophisticated tools and technologies as well as scientific means and methods…

Lydia Pine takes us “Inside the Alchemist’s Workshop.”

* Fritz Leiber


As we go for the gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he was born on this date in 1912.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.



Written by LW

April 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

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


As the number of researcher has grown, the productivity of research has fallen according to a graph in “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb. Credit: Charles I. Jones

Once again, I’m brooding over science’s limits. I recently posted Q&As with three physicists with strong opinions on the topic–David DeutschMarcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees–as well as this column: “Is Science Infinite?” Then in March I attended a two-day brainstorming session–which I’ll call “The Session”–with 20 or so science-y folks over whether science is slowing down and what we can do about it.

The Session was inspired in part by research suggesting that scientific progress is stagnating. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature–is bumping into limits…

John Horgan unpacks some of the dynamics that lead him to his gloomy conclusion in “Is science hitting a wall?”  It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and eminently worth the read… even if in the end it’s unconvincing, to your correspondent at least.

Readers might note that analogous sentiments reigned at the end of the 19th century (as per the quote that provides this post’s title).  Max Planck recalled being discouraged by a teacher (around 1875) from pursuing physics: “in this field,”  Philipp von Jolly told Planck, “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.”  Planck ignored his advice– and became one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which gave physics a very rich new life during the 20th century.  As we contemplate with Horgan the possible  “end” of its utility, we might take some consolation that brave new models are emerging, theories that might power physics– and science more generally– for at least another century.  Consider, for example, the theory that Stephen Hawking published two weeks before his death, proposing a method of detecting “the multiverse.”

* a quote widely– and incorrectly– attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, circa 1900.  It is actually a paraphrase of aa 1894 statement made by another great physicist,  Albert A. Michelson.


As we ponder progress, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.  As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.   And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.



Written by LW

April 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Technology made large populations possible; large populations now make technology indispensable”*…


 click here for enlargeable version of the full chart

For most of civilized history, life expectancy fluctuated in the 30 to 40 year range.

Child mortality was all too common, and even for those that made it to adulthood, a long and healthy life was anything but guaranteed. Sanitation was poor, disease was rampant, and many medical practices were based primarily on superstition or guesswork.

By the 20th century, an explosion in new technologies, treatments, and other science-backed practices helped to increase global life expectancy at an unprecedented rate.

From 1900 to 2015, global life expectancy more than doubled, shooting well past the 70 year mark.

What were the major innovations that made the last century so very fruitful in saving lives?…  Interestingly, while many of these innovations have some linkage to the medical realm, there are also breakthroughs in sectors like energy, sanitation, and agriculture that have helped us lead longer and healthier lives…

See the list in full, along with a nifty infographic, at “The 50 Most Important Life-Saving Breakthroughs in History.”

Readers will note that “history” for these folks seems to start in the 19th century… so that one doesn’t find, for instance, the development of domestication or the invention of the plow.  And even then, one could quibble: surely, for example, the understanding of contagious diseases, epidemiology, and medical statistics/cartography that flowed from Dr. John Snow’s mapping of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London belongs on the list.  Still, it’s provocative to ponder.

* Joesph Wood Krutch


As we realize, with Krutch, that will the sweet comes the bitter, we might spare a thought for Rachel Carson; she died on this date in 1964.  A pioneering environmentalist, her book The Silent Spring— a study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use– challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
– Rachel Carson



Written by LW

April 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The earth laughs in flowers”*…


The first flower?

With the incredible diversity of flowers that exist today—from pinprick-sized duckweed to the meters-high blooms of a corpse flower—it’s hard to imagine that they all descend from just a single species. Charles Darwin himself wrung his hands over how flowering plants exploded in diversity early in their evolution. Now, researchers have figured out what the ancestral flower might have looked like. The study may help them uncover how flowers took over the world.

Fossils are the surest way to learn about organisms that lived in the past, but these are hard to come by for early flowers: The earliest preserved blossoms date back some 130 million years—at least 10 million years after the time when researchers think the ancestor of all flowering plants was alive. But there is another way to learn about species that are long gone: by taking a careful look at the forms of their modern descendants, and tracing the history of those forms back to the trunk of their family tree.

To that end, dozens of researchers participating in the eFLOWER project amassed data from scientific papers to create the largest database of the structures of modern flowers, like their sexual organs and the layouts of their petals. The analysis included more than 13,000 data points spanning back to a 1783 description by famous evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Combining those data with a DNA-based family tree and information about fossils, the scientists tested millions of configurations of how flowers may have changed through time to determine the most likely structure and shape for the earliest flowers.

Though the team’s reconstructed ancestral flower [pictured above] doesn’t look radically different than many modern flowers, it does have a combination of traits not found today…

Pick (up) the tale in toto at: “The world’s first flower may have looked like this.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson


As we cultivate our gardens, we might send fecund birthday greetings to Sidney Walter Fox; he was born on this date in 1912.  A biochemist interested in the biological origin of life, he studied the synthesis of amino acids from inorganic molecules.  He gave the name proteinoid to the protein-like polymer that results from a mixture of amino acids subjected to such considerable heating as would be present during the volcanic primordial earth (in the “primordial soup” as it’s colloquially known).  Fox observed that when proteinoids or “thermal proteins,” are placed in water, they self-organize into microspheres or protocells, possible precursors of the contemporary living cell.  Fox argued that RNA or DNA need not date back to the origin of life; and he showed that proteinoid “microspheres,” as he called them, exhibit growth, metabolism, reproduction (by budding), and responsiveness to stimuli – all properties of life – though without a genetic system.



Written by LW

March 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All numbers are by their nature correct. Well, except for Pi, of course. I can’t be doing with Pi. Gives me a headache just thinking about it, going on and on and on and on and on…”*…


It’s Pi Day!

In celebration, a few amusing– and illuminating– links:

The history of pi

Pi day magic revealed

10 stunning images show the beauty hidden in pi

The history of Pi Day

How to Memorize Pi if You’re a Word Person (from whence, the image above)

* Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys


As we enumerate endlessly, we might pause for a piece of pi(e)…


… in celebration of Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born on this date in 1879.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


Written by LW

March 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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“Men argue. Nature acts.”*…


Scientists have converged on climate change predictions that a growing majority of Americans accept.  Still, it can be hard to understand– at a visceral level– what a warming globe might mean.  Here’s some help: a clever tool from Greg Schivley, a civil and environmental engineering PhD. student at Carnegie Mellon University (with help from Ben Noll; inspired by Sophie Lewis).  Enter some key birth dates to project how the climate will have changed from your grandma’s birth to when your kids retire.  The chart’s temperature changes are based on NASA’s historical and projected climate scenarios.

Climate change and life events

* Voltaire


As we sweat it out, we might send temperate birthday greetings to Sir William Napier Shaw; he was born on this date in 1854.  A meteorologist and member of the Royal Society, he developed the tephigram, a diagram of temperature changes still commonly used in weather analysis and forecasting.



Written by LW

March 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

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