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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”*…


Drawing of Cannabis Indica featured in O’Shaughnessy article on the plant in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1839)

Cataleptic trances, enormous appetites, and giggling fits aside, W. B. O’Shaughnessy’s investigations at a Calcutta hospital into the potential of medical marijuana — the first such trials in modern medicine — were largely positive.

Sujaan Mukherjee explores the intricacies of this pioneering research and what it can tell us more generally about the production of knowledge in colonial science: “W. B. O’Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine.”

* Barack Obama


As we choose the natural path, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794.  One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science,  But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing:  He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


Written by LW

May 24, 2017 at 1:01 am

Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow.”*…



Life expectancy has risen across the U.S. steadily over the last few decades; but the gains are not equally distributed.  Flowing Data illustrates why one might prefer Minnesota to Mississippi: “Life expectancy by state, against the US average.”

* Ray Kurzweil


As we muse on moving, we might send heart-felt birthday greetings to Willem Einthoven; he was born on this date in 1860.  A physician and physiologist, he introduced a new era in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the heart with his invention of the electrocardiograph, for which he was awarded the 1924 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  His creation became an essential clinical instrument for displaying the electrical properties of the heart– especially useful, of course, in the diagnosis of heart disease.



Written by LW

May 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The missing link in cosmology is the nature of dark matter and dark energy”*…


Familiar visible matter can be thought of as the privileged percent—actually more like 15 percent—of matter. In business and politics, the interacting 1 percent dominates decision making and policy, while the remaining 99 percent of the population provides less widely acknowledged infrastructure and support—maintaining buildings, keeping cities operational, and getting food to people’s tables. Similarly, ordinary matter dominates almost everything we notice, whereas dark matter, in its abundance and ubiquity, helped create clusters and galaxies and facilitated star formation, but has only limited influence on our immediate surroundings today…

The common assumption is that dark matter is the “glue” that holds together galaxies and galaxy clusters, but resides only in amorphous clouds around them. But what if this assumption isn’t true and it is only our prejudice—and ignorance, which is after all the root of most prejudice—that led us down this potentially misleading path?…

Indeed,  Harvard theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall asks, “Does dark matter harbor life?

* Stephen Hawking


As we reach reflexively for a flashlight, we might send particular birthday greetings to Abraham Pais; he was born on this date in 1918.  After earning his Ph.D. in physics in Holland five days before a Nazi deadline banning Jews from receiving degrees, he went into hiding– and worked out ideas in quantum electrodynamics (later shared with Niels Bohr) that became the building blocks of the theory of elemental particles.  He was later a colleague of Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Pais was also an widely-respected historian of science.  Among his many works were a biography of Bohr and (the work for which he’s best remembered as a historian) Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, which is considered the definitive Einstein biography.



Written by LW

May 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”*…


Long-time readers will know of your correspondent’s admiration and affection for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here and here).  So imagine his delight to learn from @MartyKrasney of this…

Martin wrote about 300 articles for Scientific American between 1952 and 1998, most famously in his legendary “Mathematical Games” column starting in Jan 1957. Many of those articles are now viewed as classics, from his seminal piece on hexaflexagons in Dec 1956—which led to the offer to write a regular column for the magazine—to his breakthrough essays on pentomnoes, rep-tiles, the Soma cube, the art of Escher, the fourth dimension, sphere packing, Conway’s game of Life, Newcomb’s paradox, Mandelbrot’s fractals, Penrose tiles, and RSA cryptography, not forgetting the recurring numerological exploits of his alter ego Dr. Matrix, and the tongue-in-cheek April Fool column from 1975.

Many of those gems just listed were associated with beautiful graphics and artwork, so it’s no surprise that Martin scored some Scientific American covers over the years, though as we’ll see below, there’s surprisingly little overlap between his “greatest hits” and his “cover stories.”

It’s worth noting that, just as the magazine editors selected the titles under which his original articles appeared—he generally ditched those in favor of his own when he republished them in the spin-off books—artwork submitted was often altered by Scientific American staff artists…

The full dozen, replete with the cover art, at “A Gardner’s Dozen—Martin’s Scientific American Cover Stories.”

* G.H. Hardy


As we agree with G.K Chesterton that “the difference between the poet and the mathematician is that the poet tries to get his head into the heavens while the mathematician tries to get the heavens into his head,” we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to John Charles Fields, he was born on this date in 1863.  A mathematician of accomplishment, he is better remembered as a tireless advocate of the field and its importance– and best remembered as the founder of the award posthumously named for him:  The Fields Medal, familiarly known as “the Nobel of mathematics.”



Written by LW

May 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”*…


We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west is that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices. Brexit, Le Pen, and the defeat of Hillary Clinton are examples of the cracks that result from inequality and poverty, symptoms of my childhood experience writ large. The Piketty pitchforks are out, and the march to global disorder can only be arrested by adopting measures that begin to price in the stacked deck that I and anyone else born into deep poverty sees, and resents.

I believe we will see the Italian Five Star Movement submit a referendum to leave the EU this year, and that Marine Le Pen has better than even odds of winning the French election. The EU is in danger of buckling under a globalist defeat and may exist in name only two years from now.

These trends are being accelerated by the blind belief that the poor have failed to seize the opportunities that the market or globalization has created. This myth deserves to be taken off life support—and the emerging, empirical, and carefully observed science of poverty can help us do so if we pay it the attention it deserves…

A powerful plea for a fundamental re-understanding of the economic inequality that vexes our society, and of the myth of meritocracy that has helped sustain it: “Why Poverty Is Like a Disease.”

* Mahatma Gandhi


As we agree with FDR that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little,” we might recall that this date in 1907 was “Bloody Tuesday.”  The San Francisco streetcar strike, which had begun two days earlier, erupted into violence when armed strikebreakers fired into an angry crowd of strike supporters.  Soon armed strike sympathizers returned fire.  2 died; 20 were injured.

Armed strike breaker, left, shoots into the crowd on Bloody Tuesday, May 7, 1907. The original caption in The San Francisco Examiner said that “Photographer Coleman” took the picture “the moment before the man running beside him was fatally shot.”



Written by LW

May 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…


The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will. Astronomers wonder what dark matter is, geologists seek the origins of life, and biologists try to understand cancer—all difficult problems, of course, yet at least we have some idea of how to go about investigating them and rough conceptions of what their solutions could look like. Our first-person experience, on the other hand, lies beyond the traditional methods of science. Following the philosopher David Chalmers, we call it the hard problem of consciousness.

But perhaps consciousness is not uniquely troublesome. Going back to Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, philosophers of science have struggled with a lesser known, but equally hard, problem of matter. What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics? This problem, too, seems to lie beyond the traditional methods of science, because all we can observe is what matter does, not what it is in itself—the “software” of the universe but not its ultimate “hardware.” On the surface, these problems seem entirely separate. But a closer look reveals that they might be deeply connected…

Find out how the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics at “Is Matter Conscious?

For more on the conscious controversy– what is it?  who/what has it?– see also “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

* Kingsley Amis


As we think, therefore are, we might send analytic birthday greetings to Sigismund Schlomo Freud; he was born on this date in 1856.  The father of psychoanalysis, he revolutionized the field of psychotherapy– so much so that later practitioners have often failed to recognize Freud’s scientific predecessors.  Throughout his work (in such books as Interpretation of Dreams and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) he emphasized the role of unconscious and non-rational functioning, going against most contemporary thought by suggesting that dreams and “mistakes” may have affirmative meaning.



Written by LW

May 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons”*…


The closest astronomers have come to directly “seeing” a black hole happened last year, when the LIGO observatory detected the spacetime-warping gravitational waves radiating from a pair of black holes that collided some 1.3 billion years ago.

That’s cool. But for astronomers, it’s not enough. What’s eluded them is a view of the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole from which, when crossed, there is no return. After the event horizon, gravity is so intense that not even light can escape.

We’ve never seen a direct image of a black hole. But if an audacious experiment called the Event Horizon Telescope is successful, we’ll see one for the first time…

Find out how at “Astronomers just turned on a planet-size telescope to take a picture of a black hole.”

* Edwin Hubble


As we look into it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1006 CE that observers across China, Japan, Iraq, Egypt, and Europe recorded their observation of a supernova (now known as SN 1006).  Likely the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history, it reached an estimated −7.5 visual magnitude (more than sixteen times the brightness of Venus).  Many experts believe that it was also recorded in the Native American petroglyphs in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, Arizona, making them the first North American record of a supernova sighting.

SN 1006 supernova remnant



Written by LW

April 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

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