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“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”*…



An 1874 engraving showing a probably apocryphal account of Newton’s lab fire. In the story, Newton’s dog started the fire, burning 20 years of research. Newton is thought to have said: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”


Imagine a black box which, when you pressed a button, would generate a scientific hypothesis. 50% of its hypotheses are false; 50% are true hypotheses as game-changing and elegant as relativity. Even despite the error rate, it’s easy to see this box would quickly surpass space capsules, da Vinci paintings, and printer ink cartridges to become the most valuable object in the world. Scientific progress on demand, and all you have to do is test some stuff to see if it’s true? I don’t want to devalue experimentalists. They do great work. But it’s appropriate that Einstein is more famous than Eddington. If you took away Eddington, someone else would have tested relativity; the bottleneck is in Einsteins. Einstein-in-a-box at the cost of requiring two Eddingtons per insight is a heck of a deal.

What if the box had only a 10% success rate? A 1% success rate? My guess is: still most valuable object in the world. Even an 0.1% success rate seems pretty good, considering (what if we ask the box for cancer cures, then test them all on lab rats and volunteers?) You have to go pretty low before the box stops being great.

I thought about this after reading this list of geniuses with terrible ideas. Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us…

Some of the people who have most contributed to our understanding of the world have been inexcusably wrong on basic issues.  But, as Scott Alexander argues, you only need one world-changing revelation to be worth reading: “Rule Thinkers In, Not Out.”

* Mahatma Gandhi


As we honor insight where we find it, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.




“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…




In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)


As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source


“For I have trained myself and am training myself always to be able to dance lightly in the service of thought”*…



For the last 11 years, Science and the AAAS have hosted Dance Your Ph.D., a contest that challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance. [see here and here]

This years winners have been announced:

Scientific research can be a lonely pursuit. And for Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, even the subject of his research is lonely: singleton electrons wandering through superconducting material. “Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,” Yapa says. “Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!”

Six weeks of choreographing and songwriting later, Yapa scooped the 2018 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. The judges—a panel of world-renowned artists and scientists—chose Yapa’s swinging electron dance from 50 submissions based on both artistic and scientific merits. He takes home $1000 and immortal geek fame…

Learn more, and see other category winners at “The winner of this year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest turned physics into art.”

* Søren Kierkegaard


As we tempt Terpsichore, we might spare a thought for Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he died o this date in 1999.  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

February 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”*…



Bertrand Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture.


Dismayed at the Nazification of Germany, the philosopher [Bertrand Russell] wrote “The Triumph of Stupidity,” attributing the rise of Adolf Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people—two qualities, he noted, that “usually go together.” He went on to make one of his most famous observations, that the “fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture, inspiring, for example, an opera song (from Harvard’s annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony): “Some people’s own incompetence somehow gives them a stupid sense that anything they do is first rate. They think it’s great.” No surprise, then, that psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger prefaced a 2008 paper she wrote with David Dunning and Justin Kruger, among others, with Russell’s comment—the one he later made in his 1951 book, New Hopes for a Changing World: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” “By now,” Ehrlinger noted in that paper, “this phenomenon has been demonstrated even for everyday tasks, about which individuals have likely received substantial feedback regarding their level of knowledge and skill.” Humans have shown a tendency, in other words, to be a bit thick about even the most mundane things, like how well they drive…

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

Stupidity, and what to do about it: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.”

* Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933)


As we get smart, we might spare a thought for Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin; he died on this date in 1921.  A scientist and geographer, he combined biological and historical fact to arrive at his theory of Mutual Aid.  While an army officer in Siberia, he studied the native animals, made geographical surveys, and examined the effects of the Ice Age in Asia and Europe.  His investigation of the structural lines of mountain ranges revised the cartography of eastern Asia.

But Kropotkin is probably better remembered as a revolutionary.  He wrote a series of articles against social Darwinism and its tenet of the benefits of competition.  Kropotkin argued that sociability characterized animals; thus, he held, cooperation rather than struggle guided the evolution of man and human intelligence.  These beliefs led him to propose a decentralized, “communist” society– a form of anarcho-communism, his championing of which led to his 41 year exile from Russia.  He returned in 1917, but was disappointed in the Bolshevik form of state socialism (the centralization– and totalitarian quality– of which violently conflicted with his belief in decentralization, freedom, and voluntary cooperation).

220px-Peter_Kropotkin_circa_1900 source


“It is a good day to study lichens”*…



Wolf lichen

Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” And he should know, because no group of organisms better exemplifies this principle than the one Spribille is obsessed with: lichens.

Lichens can be found growing on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; as coralline branches, tiny cups, or leaflike fronds. They look like plants or fungi, and for the longest time, biologists thought that they were. But 150 years ago, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener suggested the radical hypothesis that lichens are composite organisms—fungi, living together with microscopic algae.

It was the right hypothesis at the wrong time. The very notion of different organisms living so closely with—or within—each other was unheard of. That they should coexist to their mutual benefit was more ludicrous still. This was a mere decade after Charles Darwin had published his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, and many biologists were gripped by the idea of nature as a gladiatorial arena, shaped by conflict. Against this zeitgeist, the concept of cohabiting, cooperative organisms found little purchase. Lichenologists spent decades rejecting and ridiculing Schwendener’s “dual hypothesis.” And he himself wrongly argued that the fungus enslaved or imprisoned the alga, robbing it of nutrients. As others later showed, that’s not the case: Both partners provide nutrients to each other…

Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature– and our way of studying it.  Learn more at: “The Overlooked Organisms That Keep Challenging Our Assumptions About Life.”

* Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851


As we contemplate cooperation, we might spare a thought for John James Audubon; he died on this date in 1851.  An ornithologist, naturalist, and artist, Audubon documented all types of American birds with detailed illustrations depicting the birds in their natural habitats.  His The Birds of America (1827–1839), in which he identified 25 new species, is considered one of the most important– and finest– ornithological works ever completed.

Book plate featuring Audubon’s print of the Greater Prairie Chicken


Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!

Written by LW

January 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you”*…



Uppsala University researchers have devised a new model for the Universe – one that may solve the enigma of dark energy. Their new article, published in Physical Review Letters, proposes a new structural concept, including dark energy, for a universe that rides on an expanding bubble in an additional dimension.

We have known for the past 20 years that the Universe is expanding at an ever accelerating rate. The explanation is the “dark energy” that permeates it throughout, pushing it to expand. Understanding the nature of this dark energy is one of the paramount enigmas of fundamental physics.

It has long been hoped that string theory will provide the answer. According to string theory, all matter consists of tiny, vibrating “stringlike” entities. The theory also requires there to be more spatial dimensions than the three that are already part of everyday knowledge. For 15 years, there have been models in string theory that have been thought to give rise to dark energy. However, these have come in for increasingly harsh criticism, and several researchers are now asserting that none of the models proposed to date are workable.

In their article, the scientists propose a new model with dark energy and our Universe riding on an expanding bubble in an extra dimension. The whole Universe is accommodated on the edge of this expanding bubble. All existing matter in the Universe corresponds to the ends of strings that extend out into the extra dimension. The researchers also show that expanding bubbles of this kind can come into existence within the framework of string theory. It is conceivable that there are more bubbles than ours, corresponding to other universes.

The Uppsala scientists’ model provides a new, different picture of the creation and future fate of the Universe, while it may also pave the way for methods of testing string theory…

Via AAAS Eureka Alerts

(For a different emerging new theory– that may or may not be contradictory– see “Our universe has antimatter partner on the other side of the Big Bang.”)

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we fumble with the fundamentals, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he was born on this date in 1900.  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.)



Written by LW

January 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God”*…



2,300 years ago, Euclid of Alexandria sat with a reed pen–a humble, sliced stalk of grass–and wrote down the foundational laws that we’ve come to call geometry. Now his beautiful work is available for the first time as an interactive website.

Euclid’s Elements was first published in 300 B.C. as a compilation of the foundational geometrical proofs established by the ancient Greek. It became the world’s oldest, continuously used mathematical textbook. Then in 1847, mathematician Oliver Byrne rereleased the text with a new, watershed use of graphics. While Euclid’s version had basic sketches, Byrne reimagined the proofs in a modernist, graphic language based upon the three primary colors to keep it all straight. Byrne’s use of color made his book expensive to reproduce and therefore scarce, but Byrne’s edition has been recognized as an important piece of data visualization history all the same…

Explore elemental beauty at “A masterpiece of ancient data viz, reinvented as a gorgeous website.”

* Euclid, Elements


As we appreciate the angles, we might spare a thought for Kurt Friedrich Gödel; he died on this date in 1978.  A  logician, mathematician, and philosopher, he is considered (along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski— whose birthday this also is– and Gottlob Frege) to be one of the most important logicians in history.  Gödel had an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems, which led to (among other important results) Alan Turing’s insights into computational theory.

Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.                  — John von Neumann

kurt_gödel source


Written by LW

January 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

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