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“Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress”*…


HG Wells

Schematic from Wells’ The Outline of History (1921), showing the rise of Europe, and the “mechanical revolution” leading to, writ in huge letters along the bottom, “The Great War” [source] (See bigger version here)


H. G. Wells worried constantly about the future of humanity. While he hoped for progress in human affairs, he was only too well aware that it was not inevitable and might not be sustained. Throughout his career he celebrated the technological developments that were revolutionizing life but feared they might lead to eventual degeneration or, as came to pass in 1914, a catastrophic war. He was also aware that there were disagreements over what would actually count as progress. Providing everyone with the benefits of modern industry might not be enough, especially as continued technological innovation would require the constant remodeling of society. Progressive steps introducing entirely new functions were episodic, open-ended and unpredictable, in both biological and social evolution. These uncertainties were compounded by a realization that, where technological innovation was concerned, it was virtually impossible to predict future inventions or what their long-term consequences might be. Even if progress continued, it would be much more open-ended than advocates of the traditional idea of progress had imagined…

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explains, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities: “H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress.”

* John Wooden


As we ponder posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that (not yet Sir) Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (AKA “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, AKA the Principia).  In three volumes Newton laid out his laws of motion (the foundation of classical mechanics), his theory of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler had obtained empirically).

As G.E. Smith wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Viewed retrospectively, no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia… no one could deny that [out of the Principia] a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.

Title page of Principia, first edition



Written by LW

July 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Let It Bleed”*…



Science sometimes goes down an incorrect path. Though the path is wrong, a detailed superstructure of learning gets built on top of the incorrect premise. Such was the case with the medical practice of bloodletting in the early 1800s, where detailed procedures were developed regarding which veins to open for a given set of symptoms. One leader in this practice was America’s Dr. Benjamin Rush:

Early in the [1800s], … physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, because people, even when they are thoroughly enmeshed in descriptions of reality which are at variance with reality, are still seldom devoid of the powers of observation and independent thought, the science of bloodletting, over most of its long sway, appears usually to have been tempered with a certain amount of common sense. Or it was tempered until it reached its highest peaks of technique in, of all places, the young United States. Bloodletting went wild here. It had an enormously influential proponent in Dr. Benjamin Rush, still revered as the greatest statesman-physician of our revolutionary and federal periods, and a genius of medical administration. Dr. Rush Got Things Done. Among the things he got done, some of them good and useful, were to develop, practice, teach and spread the custom of bloodletting in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use. He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence.

His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians. And yet as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling ‘the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.’ Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched…

As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense…

Via DelanceyPlace.com, an excerpt from Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Bloodletting.”

* The Rolling Stones


As we drip, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that the first science fiction series debuted on American television, the DuMont Network’s Captain Video and His Video Rangers.  Written by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, and Jack Vance, it was– even in its time, when early television productions often were thrown-together affairs– considered crude, owing much to the fact that the daily show was done live on a meager budget.  Indeed, the actors were paid so little they actually made more money from appearing in character at supermarket openings, county fairs, and the like than they did from their salaries.

Still, it ran for a total of 1,537 episodes, and quickly spawned competitive sci-fi offerings like Tom Corbet, Space Cadet and Space Patrol.

Captain_Video_title_card source


Written by LW

June 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Doubt thou the stars are fire”*…




Solar storms are a relatively regular occurrence.  But in 1859, a massive solar storm occurred; solar flares created the one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record.  Telegraph service failed… but otherwise the event was largely a curiosity.

A new study calculates that our sun may produce another ‘superflare’ in the next 100 years… and suggests that the resulting damage to electronic systems on which we’ve come to depend could be devastating.

How much more disruptive would a superflare be? It’s hard to say because the damage would seem to be incalculable. A superflare even a hundred times more powerful than what we normally experience would almost certainly hit every unprotected electronic system on Earth in some fashion, disrupting or outright crippling powergrids around the world, disabling machinery and manufacturing, blowing out cell phones, satellites, and all the rest. Transportation systems depend on electronics, as do utility systems, communications systems, in short: everything could just stop working overnight, even though we probably wouldn’t feel a thing.

If the superflare was thousands of times more powerful than normal? For all we know, it could send humanity back to the Age of Sail practically overnight–at least until we can repair or replace the entire planet’s electronic infrastructure, a tall order when you have no power transmission to manufacture replacement electronic components and we’re all reduced to communicating using carrier pigeons and old fashioned letters…

The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude to the 1859 flare, but it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days.  For more on what we might expect of we’re not so lucky next time, see “Massive Superflare Eruption from Sun within 100 Years Possible, New Study Says.”

And for more background see: “Solar Flare: What If Biggest Known Sun Storm Hit Today?

* Shakespeare


As we slip on our shades, we might spare a thought for Giovanni Battista Riccioli; he died on this date in 1671.  He is known, among other things, for his experiments with pendulums and with falling bodies, for his discussion of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the Earth, and for discovering the first double star.  But he is perhaps most remembered for introducing (in in Almagestum Novum in1651) the current scheme of lunar nomenclature: he named the more prominent features after famous astronomers, scientists and philosophers, while the large dark and smooth areas he called “seas” or “maria”.  The lunar seas were named after moods (Seas of Tranquillity, Serenity) or terrestrial phenomena (Sea of Rains, Ocean or Storms).

440px-Giovanni_Battista_Riccioli source


Written by LW

June 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Life is a DNA software system”*…




DNA from discarded cigarette butts and chewed up gum has been used to create a series of life-sized 3D printed portraits for a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg walked the streets of New York picking up cigarettes and hair for her project called Stranger Visions.

She then analysed the DNA to work out the gender and ethnicity of the people involved as well as their likely eye colour and other traits including the size of their nose, before using face-generating software and a 3D printer to create a series of speculative portraits

More– and more photos– at “3D printed portraits made with DNA from cigarette butts to feature in new Wellcome Collection display.”

See also the analogically-related “Artificial Intelligence Generates Humans’ Faces Based on Their Voices.”

* Craig Venter


As we noodle on nature and nurture, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that the USDA announced the first genetically-engineered vaccine for any animal or human disease: an immunization against Hoof and Mouth Disease (also known as Foot and Mouth Disease, or FMD), created using gene splicing.

NHF-FMD-Keep-Out source


“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”*…




The neuroscientist was in the art gallery and there were many things to learn. So Eric Kandel excitedly guided me through the bright lobby of the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of fin de siècle Austrian and German art, located in a Beaux-Art mansion, across from Central Park. The Nobel laureate was dressed in a dark blue suit with white pinstripes and red bowtie. I was dressed, well, less elegantly.

Since winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for uncovering the electrochemical mechanisms of memory, Kandel had been thinking about art. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he published The Age of Insight and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, both of which could be called This Is Your Brain on Art. The Age of Insight detailed the rise of neuroscience out of the medical culture that surrounded Sigmund Freud, and focused on Gustav Klimt and his artistic disciples Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, whose paintings mirrored the age’s brazen ideas about primal desires smoldering beneath conscious control.

I’d invited Kandel to meet me at the Neue Galerie because it was the premier American home of original works by Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It was 2014 when we met and I had long been reading about neuroaesthetics, a newish school in neuroscience, and a foundation of The Age of Insight, where brain computation was enlisted to explain why and what in art turned us on. I was anxious to hear Kandel expound on how neuroscience could enrich art, as he had written, though I also came with a handful of doubts…

Kevin Berger learns “what neuroscience is doing to art”: “Gustav Klimt in the Brain Lab.”

* Bill Watterson


As we think about thinking about it, we might spare a thought for Jacob Lawrence; he died on this date in 2000.  One of the best-respected 20th century American painters, and one the most well-known African-American artists, Jacobs described his style as “Dynamic Cubism.”  His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

He is perhaps best known for a 60-panel work, Migration Series (depicting the migration of rural southern African-Americans to the urban north), which he painted on cardboard.  The collection is now held by two museums: the odd-numbered paintings are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered are displayed at MOMA in New York.


The first panel of Migration Series [source]

220px-Portrait_of_Jacob_Lawrence_LCCN2004663191 source


Written by LW

June 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“To sleep, perchance to dream”*…




On a typical workday morning, if you’re like most people, you don’t wake up naturally. Instead, the ring of an alarm clock probably jerks you out of sleep. Depending on when you went to bed, what day of the week it is, and how deeply you were sleeping, you may not understand where you are, or why there’s an infernal chiming sound. Then you throw out your arm and hit the snooze button, silencing the noise for at least a few moments. Just another couple of minutes, you think. Then maybe a few minutes more.

It may seem like you’re giving yourself a few extra minutes to collect your thoughts. But what you’re actually doing is making the wake-up process more difficult and drawn out…

Journalist (and professional poker player) Maria Konnikova on why “Snoozers are, in fact, losers.”

* Shakespeare, Hamlet


As we ruminate on rest, we might spare a thought for a man who seems barely to have slept at all, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.




Written by LW

May 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The average scientist unequipped with the powerful lenses of philosophy, is a nearsighted creature, and cheerfully attacks each difficulty in the hope that it may prove to be the last”*…




There are decisive grounds for holding that we need to bring about a revolution in philosophy, a revolution in science, and then put the two together again to create a modern version of natural philosophy.

Once upon a time, it was not just that philosophy was a part of science; rather, science was a branch of philosophy. We need to remember that modern science began as natural philosophy – a development of philosophy, an admixture of philosophy and science. Today, we think of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and, of course, Isaac Newton as trailblazing scientists, while we think of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz as philosophers. That division is, however, something we impose on the past. It is profoundly anachronistic…

Science broke away from metaphysics, from philosophy, as a result of natural philosophers adopting a profound misconception about the nature of science. As a result, natural philosophy died, the great divide between science and philosophy was born, and the decline of philosophy began.

It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction…

Nicholas Maxwell argues that science and philosophy need to be re-joined, lest humanity seek knowledge at the expense of wisdom; only then, he suggests, can we hope to solve the urgent, fundamental problems that we face: “Natural philosophy redux.”

[Image above: source]

* Gilbert N. Lewis


As we seek ever-higher ground, we might that it was on this date in 1898 that the heirs of Alfred Nobel signed a “reconciliation agreement,” allowing his lawyers and accountants to execute his will.  The lion’s share of his estate was clearly marked for the establishment of the eponymous Prizes that are awarded each year.  But the residue, which was to be divided among descendants was the subject of much contention.


The first page of Nobel’s will [source]


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