(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Science

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned”*…

… or, as Confucius would have it, “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Happily Wikenigma is here to help…

Wikenigma is a unique wiki-based resource specifically dedicated to documenting fundamental gaps in human knowledge.

Listing scientific and academic questions to which no-one, anywhere, has yet been able to provide a definitive answer. [949 so far]

That’s to say, a compendium of so-called ‘Known Unknowns’…

Consider, for example…

How do marine turtle accurately migrate thousands of kilometers for nesting?

Can Beal’s conjecture be proved?

Can one solve the “envelope paradox”?

Do “naked singularities” exist?

What is the etymology of the word “plot” (which appears only in English)?

What were the purposes of “Perforated Batons,” man-made historical artifacts formed from deer antlers, dating back 12,000-24,000 years and found widely across Europe?

What are the function, importance, and evolutionary history of human “inner speech”?

One could– and should– go on: Wikenigma, via @Recomendo6.

* Richard Feynman

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As we wonder, we might spare a thought for a man who embodied curiosity, Marvin Minsky; he died on this date in 2016.  A biochemist and cognitive scientist by training, he was founding director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Project (the MIT AI Lab).  Minsky authored several widely-used texts, and made many contributions to AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics.  He holds several patents, including those for the first neural-network simulator (SNARC, 1951), the first head-mounted graphical display, the first confocal scanning microscope, and the LOGO “turtle” device (with his friend and frequent collaborator Seymour Papert).  His other inventions include mechanical hands and the “Muse” synthesizer.

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January 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Rumors and reports of man’s relation with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves”*…

Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of north-west Saudi Arabia. These ancient hunting structures were named ‘kites’ by aviators in the 1920s because, observed from above, their form is reminiscent of old-fashioned child’s kites with streamers.

… and on the surface of the desert. Vittoria Benzine explains…

In the 1920s, British Royal Air Force pilots over the Middle East recorded the first sightings of what they dubbed desert kites—massive patterns carved into rocky land, often resembling the famous flying toy.

Archaeologists have since debated the purpose of these enigmas, which appear across geographies and eras, dating back to the Neolithic Period (10,000–2,200 B.C.E.) in Jordan, the early Bronze Age (3,300–2,100 B.C.E.) in Israel’s Negev Desert, and the Middle Bronze Age (2,100–1,550 B.C.E.) in Armenia. Some thought they were cultural cornerstones. Still more posited they were pens for domesticating animals.

Three recent peer-reviewed papers confirm popular hypotheses that the desert kites actually served as mass hunting traps, allowing early desert dwellers to kill entire herds of game at once. While they were active, the kites funneled gazelle and ibex down tapered, wall-lined paths which ended in massive pits or sudden cliffs where creatures were trapped and killed. The kites’s particular placement, length, and shape generally demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of landscapes and animal behaviors…

The full story at “Scientists Have Cracked the Origins of ‘Desert Kites,’ Massive Prehistoric Patterns That Were Carved into the Middle Eastern Desert,” from @vittoriabenzine in @artnet.

* Lewis Lapham

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As we we admire ingenuity, we might spare a thought for Siegfried Frederick (“S.F.” or “Fred”) Nadel; he died on this date in 1956. An anthropologist who did important work in Africa, he is best remembered as a theorist whose work built on the thinking of Bronislaw Malinowski, sociologist Max Weber, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and psychologist Kurt Koffka. In The Foundations of Social Anthropology (1951) he asserted that the main task of the science is to explain as well as to describe aim-controlled, purposive behaviour. Suggesting that sociological facts emerge from psychological facts, he argued that full explanations are to be derived from psychological exploration of motivation and consciousness. And in his posthumous Theory of Social Structure (1958), regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost theoretical works in the social sciences, Nadel examined social roles, which he considered to be crucial in the analysis of social structure.

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January 14, 2023 at 1:00 am

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

Some observations are best considered “interesting, if true”; some, a la Karl Popper, “true, until false”… Consider this very recent paper in Nature

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.

The full paper: “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time@Nature

One notes that the quote above– from Lord Kelvin, at the turn of the twentieth century– immediately preceded a couple of decades in which physics was radically redefined and advanced by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, et al. (In fairness to Kelvin, consider this suggestion that his point was more subtle.) As we look forward, we might ponder the ways in which the reorganization of disciplines, the rise of research in other cultures (less constrained by the mores of “conventional” research), the use of AI, and/or some as yet unknown dynamic could challenge the phenomenon– “a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”– to which the authors attribute diminishing disruption.

[Source of the image above]

* Lord Kelvin, in an address to the the Royal Institution in April of 1900

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As we ponder progress, we might send advanced birthday greetings to Wilhelm Wien; he was born on this date in 1864. A physicist, his work helped move past Kelvin’s log-jam. In 1893, he used theories about heat and electromagnetism to deduce Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody (a surface that absorbs all radiant energy falling on it) at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature. His colleague Max Planck colaborated with Wien, then extended the thinking in what we now know as Planck’s law, which led to the development of quantum theory.

Wien received the 1911 Nobel Prize for his work on heat radiation.

Just before Kelvin’s speech (in 1898) Wien identified a positive particle equal in mass to the hydrogen atom– what we now know as a proton. Wien, in the techniques he used, laid the foundation of mass spectrometry.

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January 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Am I as admirable as that ant?”*…

There are lots of ants on earth. And, as Anna Turns explains, they play a big role as ecosystem engineers– as well as providing insights on everything from the climate to aging…

To most of us, they are small, uninteresting and sometimes annoying, but 2022 revealed just how ubiquitous ants are and how indispensable they are to the planet. Scientists revealed in September that there are an estimated 20 quadrillion (or 20 million billion) ants globally – that’s 2.5 million for every person on the planet.

More than 12,000 known species of ant live in all sorts of habitats, from the Arctic to the tropics and they represent one of the most diverse, abundant and specialist groups of animals on the planet. Leafcutter ants are fungus farmers, slave-making ants capture broods to increase their work force, while wood ants herd aphids to the juiciest parts of a plant to harvest their honeydew sap…

Experts agree that ants are ecosystem engineers because they play a crucial role in decomposing organic matter, recycling nutrients, improving soil health, removing pests and dispersing seeds. But, historically, ants haven’t attracted as much attention as crop pollinators, such as bees, which perhaps have more of an obvious economic value. That bias could soon change. Ants have been used as a biological pest control on citrus crops in China for centuries, and research published in August indicates that the pest control potential of some predatory ants could work better than some agricultural chemicals.

The wonders of ant biology throw up plenty of other possibilities for real-world applications. Queen ants that live more than 30 years – yet have the same genetic material as a short-lived worker ant – could teach us something about senescence. Nobody understands how queens store sperm for decades inside their bodies without any degradation, despite colonies living in different climates. Meanwhile, Schultheiss’ [Dr Patrick Schultheiss, of the University of Würzburg] research into ant navigation – how they find food and how they behave when they get lost – could help build mathematical models that instruct a robot searching for missing people.

Looking back at how ants evolved can shed light on a huge array of other plants and animals, too. Butterflies that rely on ants to tend to their caterpillars could disappear if those ants are wiped out, says Corrie Moreau, a professor at Cornell University: “Nature is this intricate woven tapestry and if you pull one thread, you’ll never know which is the critical thread that makes the whole thing fall apart.”…

Insects and us: a mind-blowing 20 quadrillion ants and what they mean for the planet,” from @AnnaTurns in @guardian.

Nobuyuki Fukumoto

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As we get antsy, we might spare a thought for Swedish botanist Carl Linné, better known as Carolus Linnaeus, “the Father of Taxonomy,” died on this date in 1778.  Historians suggest that the academically-challenged among us can take heart from his story: at the University of Lund, where he studied medicine, he was “less known for his knowledge of natural history than for his ignorance of everything else.” Still, he made is way from Lund to Uppsala, where he began his famous system of plant and animal classification– still in use today.

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January 10, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…

The periodic table of elements, in the form introduced by Dmitri Mendeleev, is something that many of us take for granted. But as Philip Ball explains, there are a number of different visualizations making claims for our attention…

The Periodic Table was conceived as a scheme for bringing order to the elements. When there were deemed to be only four of these—the earth, air, fire, and water of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (it was just one of the elemental systems proposed in ancient times, but enjoyed the weighty advocacy of Plato and Aristotle)—things seemed simple enough. But during the Renaissance, natural philosophers were increasingly forced to accept that the metals then known—copper, iron, lead, tin, mercury, silver and gold—were not as interconvertible as the alchemists believed, but seemed to have an elemental primacy about them, too. More and more of these became recognized—zinc, bismuth, cobalt, and others—along with other new elements such as sulfur, phosphorus, carbon, and, in the late eighteenth century, gaseous elements like nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. When the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (who named those latter two) drew up a list of known elements for his seminal textbook Traité élémentaire de chemie in 1789, he counted 33—including light and heat, which he called caloric.

The list didn’t seem to be arbitrary though. In the early nineteenth century, several scientists noted that some elements seemed to come in families, resembling one another in the kinds of reactions they engaged in and the compounds they formed. Some claimed to see triads: the halogens chlorine, bromine and iodine for example, or the reactive metals sodium, potassium (both discovered by English chemist Humphry Davy in 1807) and lithium (identified in 1817). Was there a hidden pattern to the elements?

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, working at Saint Petersburg University, is usually credited with discovering that pattern. A Siberian by birth, with Rasputin-like dishevelled hair and an irascible manner, he published his first Periodic Table in 1869. It is “periodic” because, if you list the elements in order of their mass, certain chemical properties seem to recur periodically along the list. The table is produced by folding that linear list so that elements with shared properties sit in vertical columns (although Mendeleev’s first table had them instead in rows, effectively turning today’s table on its side)…

Still, it’s a weird kind of periodicity. At first, chemical properties seemed to recur every eight elements. But in the row that starts with potassium, there’s an interlude of ten metals—the transition metals—and so it continues thereafter, creating a periodicity of 18. And after lanthanum (element 57), chemists discovered a whole series of 14 metallic elements with almost identical properties that have to be squeezed in too—frankly, these elements, called the lanthanides after the first of their ilk, all seem a bit redundant. There’s another block like this after radioactive actinium (element 89), called the actinides. In most Periodic Tables, the lanthanide and actinide blocks are left floating freely underneath so the table doesn’t get stretched beyond the confines of the page. (Some insist that this long-form table is the only proper one.) Why this odd structure?

The answer became clear with the invention of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century. The chemical properties of New Zealander Ernest Rutherford showed that atoms comprise a central, very dense nucleus with a positive electrical charge, surrounded by enough negatively charged electrons to perfectly balance that charge. Rutherford imagined the electrons orbiting the nucleus like moons, but in the quantum-mechanical description they occupy nebulous, smeared-out clouds called orbitals. Using quantum mechanics to describe the disposition of electrons shows that they are arrayed in shells. The first of these can contain just two electrons—this is the only shell possessed by hydrogen and helium, the two lone elements at the tops of the towers—while the next has eight, and then 18. The shape of the periodic table thus encodes the character of the quantum atom.

All clear? Not quite. Even now, there’s no consensus about how to draw the Periodic Table…

Read on to explore some fascinating alternative depictions: “Picture This: The Periodic Table,” by @philipcball in @PioneerWorks_.

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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As we ruminate on relationships, we might spare a thought for Vladimir Vernadsky; he died on this date in 1945. A Ukrainian mineralogist and geochemist, he is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and radiogeology. He also co-founded and served as the first President of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (now National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine).

Vernadsky is probably best remembered for his 1926 book Biosphere, in which he popularized the concepts of the biosphere and the noosphere, arguing (after Eduard Suess) that in the Earth’s development, the noosphere (cognitive life) is the third stage in the earth’s development, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition will fundamentally transform the biosphere. In this theory, the principles of both life and cognition are essential features of the Earth’s evolution, and must have been implicit in the earth all along (a position Vernadsky held was complementary to Darwin’s theory of evolution). Indeed, within the last 200 years, humanity has been a powerful geologic force, moving more mass upon the earth than has the biosphere.

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January 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

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