(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Science

“Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen”*…

 

We’ve certainly come a long way since the ancient Greek atomists speculated about the nature of material substance, 2,500 years ago. But for much of this time we’ve held to the conviction that matter is a fundamental part of our physical universe. We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy. And, although matter may be reducible to microscopic constituents, for a long time we believed that these would still be recognizable as matter—they would still possess the primary quality of mass.

Modern physics teaches us something rather different, and deeply counter-intuitive. As we worked our way ever inward—matter into atoms, atoms into sub-atomic particles, sub-atomic particles into quantum fields and forces—we lost sight of matter completely. Matter lost its tangibility. It lost its primacy as mass became a secondary quality, the result of interactions between intangible quantum fields. What we recognize as mass is a behavior of these quantum fields; it is not a property that belongs or is necessarily intrinsic to them.

Despite the fact that our physical world is filled with hard and heavy things, it is instead the energy of quantum fields that reigns supreme. Mass becomes simply a physical manifestation of that energy, rather than the other way around…

Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property: “Physics Has Demoted Mass.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

###

As we watch all that is solid melt into air, we might spare a jaundiced thought for Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he died on this date in 1976.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

Interestingly, some current research suggests that heritable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly–and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making”*…

 

Sometimes it seems surprising that science functions at all. In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title “Why most published research findings are false.” Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University [see here and here], it didn’t actually show that any particular result was wrong. Instead, it showed that the statistics of reported positive findings was not consistent with how often one should expect to find them. As Ioannidis concluded more recently, “many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85 percent of research resources are wasted.”

It’s likely that some researchers are consciously cherry-picking data to get their work published. And some of the problems surely lie with journal publication policies. But the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. “Seeing the reproducibility rates in psychology and other empirical science, we can safely say that something is not working out the way it should,” says Susann Fiedler, a behavioral economist at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany. “Cognitive biases might be one reason for that.”

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea…

How the co-founder of the Open Science Framework and the Center for Open Science is tackling human biases in science: “The Trouble With Scientists.”

* “Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly–and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity)”     – Stephen Jay Gould

###

As we share and share alike, we might spare a thought for William “Willy” A. Higinbotham; he died on this date in 1994.  A physicist who was a member of the team that developed the first atomic bomb, he later became a leader in the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

But Higinbotham may be better remembered as the creator of Tennis for Two, the first interactive analog computer game and one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display, which he built for the 1958 visitor day at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  It used a small analogue computer with ten direct-connected operational amplifiers and output a side view of the curved flight of the tennis ball on an oscilloscope only five inches in diameter. Each player had a control knob and a button.

 source

The 1958 Tennis for Two exhibit

source

 

 

Written by LW

November 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”*…

 

Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the ground. Then, rather than eating this bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling the grapes with their sharp quills. They could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their spines, as a meal for their young. The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man’s spiritual fruits.

Longstanding readers of our Medieval Manuscripts Blog may know that we have a penchant for hedgehogs. In 2012, we published a post entitled The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle,based on the accounts of their behaviour in medieval bestiaries. In 2014, we brought you a hedgehog beauty contest, no less, featuring images of five of our favourites. And most recently we focused on the heraldic hedgehog in the 13th-century Dering Roll.

We’ve now discovered this fantastic animation, based on the drawings of hedgehogs in one of the British Library’s medieval bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r). De Herinacio: On the Hedgehog was made by the amazing Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images. We hope that you love it as much as we do! Maybe it will inspire more people to explore and reinvent our wonderful collections…

 

More at the British Library’s “How To Be A Hedgehog.”

* Archilochus, as quoted in Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful The Hedgehog and the Fox.

###

As we roll in it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the first issue of the journal Nature was published.  Taking it’s title from a line of Wordsworth’s (“To the solid ground of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye”), its aim was to “provide cultivated readers with an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.”  It remains a weekly, international, interdisciplinary journal of science, one of the few remaining tat publish across a wide array of fields.  It is consistently ranked the world’s most cited scientific journal and is ascribed an impact factor of approximately 38.1, making it one of the world’s top academic journals.

Nature‘s first first page

source

 

“Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death”*…

 

The kitchen is well equipped and stocked. There’s a stove, a refrigerator full of food, a table with a rolling pin and a bowl, and a sink with Ivory soap. The wall calendar, featuring with a sailing ship, says it’s April 1944. But there’s something else: Every item is miniature, hand-crafted, and a doll lies on the floor, apparently dead, cause unknown.

This is one of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of 1/12-scale dioramas based on real-life criminal investigation cases. They were used—and continue to be studied even today—to train investigators in the art of evidence gathering, meticulous documentation, and keen observation. And they were created by one of the most unlikely and influential figures in crime scene forensics…

From “The Grim Crime-Scene Dollhouses Made by the ‘Mother of Forensics’,” which prompts a look back at (R)D’s earlier visit with Ms. Glessner:

 source

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) was a millionaire heiress and Chicago society dame with a very unusual hobby for a woman raised according to the strictest standards of nineteenth century domestic life: investigating murder. And she did this through a most unexpected medium: dollhouse-like dioramas. Glessner Lee grew up home-schooled and well-protected in the fortress-like Glessner House, designed by renown American architect H.H. Richardson, but she was introduced to the fields of homicide investigation and forensic science by her brother’s friend, George Magrath, who later became a medical examiner and professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. Instantly captivated by the nascent pursuit, she became one of its most influential advocates. In 1936, she endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard and made subsequent gifts to establish chaired professorships and seminars in homicide investigation. But that’s not all…

Glessner Lee, rather than using her well cultivated domestic skills to throw lavish parties for debutantes, tycoons, and other society types, subverted the notions typically enforced upon a woman of her standing by hosting elaborate dinners for investigators who would share with her, in sometimes gory detail, the intricacies of their profession. Glessner Lee oversaw every detail of these dinners herself, down to the menu and floral arrangements. She could probably tell you which wine goes best with discussion about a strangled corpse found in a bathroom. But the matronly Glessner Lee — who may have been the inspiration for Angela Lansbury’s character in “Murder She Wrote”– wanted to do more to help train investigators. She wanted to create a new tool for them…

In her conversations with police officers, scholars and scientists, she came to understand that through careful observation and evaluation of a crime scene, evidence can reveal what transpired within that space. The physical traces of a crime, the clues, the vestiges of a transgressive moment, have a limited lifespan, however, and can be lost or accidentally corrupted. If a crime scene were properly studied, the truth would ultimately be revealed.

To help her investigator friends learn to assess evidence and apply deductive reasoning,  to help them “find the truth in a nutshell,” Frances Glessner Lee created what she called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,”  a series of lovingly crafted dioramas at the scale of one inch to one foot, each one a fully furnished picturesque scene of domesticity with one glaringly subversive element: a dead body…

These miniature crime scenes were representations of actual cases, assembled through police reports and court records to depict the crime as it happened and the scene as it was discovered. They were pure objective recreations. The design of each dollhouse, however, was Glessner Lee’s own invention and revealed her own predilections and biases formed while growing up in a palatial, meticulously appointed home. She makes certain assumptions about taste and lifestyle of low-income families, and her dioramas of their apartments are garishly decorated with, as Miller notes, “nostalgic,” and “often tawdry” furnishings.

Investigators had to learn how to search a room and identify important evidence to construct speculative narratives that would explain the crime and identify the criminal.  Glessner Lee’s models helped them develop and practice specific methods –geometric search patterns or zones, for example– to complete an analysis of a crime scene. “The forensic investigator,” Miller writes, “takes on the tedious task of sorting through the detritus of domestic life gone awry….the investigator claims a specific identity and an agenda: to interrogate a space and its objects through meticulous visual analysis”…

Read the full story at “How a Chicago Heiress Trained Homicide Detectives With an Unusual Tool: Dollhouses.”

* William S. Burroughs

###

As we re-enact the crime, we might send elegantly-designed birthday greetings to Sir Christopher Wren; he was born in this date (O.S.) in 1632.  One of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history, he was given responsibility for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666, including what is regarded as his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill, completed in 1710; his other works include the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the south front of Hampton Court Palace, and the Wren Building, the main building at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Educated in Latin and Aristotelian physics at Oxford, Wren was also a notable anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist. He was a founder of the Royal Society (and its president 1680–82).

 source

 

Written by LW

October 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Oh, there you are Peter”*…

 

The missing links between galaxies have finally been found. This is the first detection of the roughly half of the normal matter in our universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – unaccounted for by previous observations of stars, galaxies and other bright objects in space.

You have probably heard about the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to permeate the universe, the effects of which we can see through its gravitational pull. But our models of the universe also say there should be about twice as much ordinary matter out there, compared with what we have observed so far.

Two separate teams found the missing matter – made of particles called baryons rather than dark matter – linking galaxies together through filaments of hot, diffuse gas

Get galactic at: “Half the universe’s missing matter has just been finally found.”

* meme

###

As we heed E.M. Forster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Sir William Rowan Hamilton conceived the theory of quaternions.  A physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who made important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, he had been working since the late 1830s on the basic principles of algebra, resulting in a theory of conjugate functions, or algebraic couples, in which complex numbers are expressed as ordered pairs of real numbers.  But he hadn’t succeeded in developing a theory of triplets that could be applied to three-dimensional geometric problems.  Walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in Dublin, Hamilton realized that the theory should involve quadruplets, not triplets– at which point he stopped to carve carve the underlying equations in a nearby bridge lest he forget them.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“We can learn a lot from trees: they’re always grounded but never stop reaching heavenward”*…

 

Cook pines at U.C. Irvine

… or reaching in some direction, anyway:

California’s Cook pines have a weird characteristic. The towering trees lean conspicuously to one side, always toward the south, as though buffeted by years of strong winds.

But no one really understands why.

So a few years ago, botanists from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo took up the mystery. They collected data from 100 or so trees in California. Every one leaned south.

Then came an “aha” moment.

The scientists reached out to a colleague in Australia and asked him to check the Cook pines there. What he told them was “crazy,” said Jason Johns, who was the lead author of a study drawn from the research.

“The pattern was there,” he said, “just in the opposite direction.” The trees appeared to be leaning toward the Equator, a trait never before documented in the plant kingdom.

Cook pines are native to New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific, but they’ve spread the globe, including thousands in California. The Cal Poly researchers found that the leaning pattern held with measurements from Cook pines taken on five Continents.

According to their calculations, the odds that it resulted from chance, said Mr. Johns, “were point zero, zero, with like 14 zeros in front of it. It was pretty clear.”

The why, however, remains an open question.

Mr. Johns was reluctant to venture a theory. Pressed, he talked about a cell process called “signaling cascade” and the interplay between growth, sunlight and gravity.

The Cook pine discovery, he offered, was an example of how far science has to go in understanding the way the world works.

“As you know with anything,” he said, “the more you uncover, the more you realize how little you know.”

The biological compass.

* Everett Mamor

###

As we orient to due south, we might spare a thought for Herbert Faulkner Copeland; he died on this date in 1968.  An biologist, he delineated four biological kingdoms, instead of the (then-canonical) two for plants and animals.  A decade after Darwin’s Origin of Species, Ernst Haekel had proposed (1866) adding a kingdom, Protista, for microorganisms, but it was never adopted.  Copeland further discriminated among the microorganisms in a paper in 1938, splitting them into two kingdoms: Monera and Protista.  Copeland identified Monera as organisms without nuclei, and Protista as being largely unicellular, with nuclei.  By 1956, he published a book, The Classification of Lower Organisms, still trying “to persuade the community of biologists” to adopt these four kingdoms.  Change came slowly, but continues now beyond Copeland’s ideas to five or six.  He was the son of botanist Edwin B. Copeland, from whom he learned the principles of classification.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”*…

 

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in setting the Doomsday Clock 2.5 minutes before midnight earlier this year. On nuclear weapons and climate change, “humanity’s most pressing existential threats,” the Bulletin’s scientists found that “inaction and brinkmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”

Every day, it seems, brings with it fresh new horrors. Mass murderCatastrophic climate changeNuclear annihilation.

It’s all enough to make a reasonable person ask: How much longer can things go on this way?

A Princeton University astrophysicist named J. Richard Gott has a surprisingly precise answer to that question…

Gott applies straight-forward logic and the laws of probability to setting our exit date.  “Calculations” haven’t worked out so well for Mayan seers or the likes of Harold Camping; but as you’ll read, Gott has tested his method, and done remarkably well… so: “We have a pretty good idea of when humans will go extinct.”

* REM

###

As we plan our parties, we might recall that it was on this date in (what we now call) 46 BCE, that the final year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar, began.  The Romans had added a leap month every few years to keep their lunar calendar in sync with the solar year, but had missed a few with the chaos of the civil wars of the late Republic. Julius Caesar added two extra leap months to recalibrate the calendar in preparation for his calendar reform, which went into effect in (what we now now as) 45 BC.  The year, which had 445 days, was thus known as annus confusionis (“year of confusion”).

Fragmentary fresco of a pre-Julian Roman calendar

source

 

 

Written by LW

October 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: