(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘scientific instruments

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play”*…

We all know that our behavior has to change if we’re going to continue healthily and happily to inhabit the earth. And we all have a few ideas of changes we can make to make a difference. But they are mostly incremental and remedial. What might a society designed to have a healthy relationship to its environment look like? Spencer R. Scott has some guidelines…

Many see the Industrial Revolution as its own kind of Renaissance. Over the past 300 years it enabled an accumulation of wealth that the world has never before seen. Yet, industrialization and the fossil-fuels that aided its growth did not come without a price. As a recent report warns, six of nine planetary boundaries have been exceeded.  This unprecedented material abundance is only enjoyed by some, yet has polluted and put at risk the whole world’s air, rivers, oceans, forests, and food, and has caused two of humanity’s largest crises: climate change and the biodiversity crisis. The era of the industrial civilization is foreclosing on itself, and many are now pointing to the need for an ecological civilization to take its place. This would be a true Renaissance, where human and ecological flourishing alike are at the center of everything we do. 

Before industrialization, humanity existed in an agricultural civilization during which productivity was low and people were organized around meeting basic needs. The industrial civilization ushered in a new high-productivity era that inevitably affected peoples’ values, lifestyles, beliefs, and the institutions that governed them. An ecological civilization will similarly necessitate a major paradigm shift. As Jeremy Lent asserts in “What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?”, we need “a transformation in the way we make sense of the world, and a concomitant revolution in our values, goals, and collective behavior.” 

From Latin, ecology means “knowledge of home” and ecological means the “applied knowledge of home.” While the old industrial system is characterized by an indifference to how life on this planet works, an ecological civilization operates with ecological principles at its core – with behaviors, values, goals, and institutions organized around the applied knowledge of life on Earth. 

In her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus outlines some of Life’s Principles here on Earth:

Life runs on sunlight. Life rewards cooperation. Life builds from the bottom up. Life banks on diversity. Life recycles everything. Life builds resilience through diversity, decentralization, and redundancy. Life optimizes rather than maximizes. Life selects for the good of the whole system. In short, life creates the conditions conducive to life.

Inspired by Benyus’ Life’s Principles and the work of sustainable development scholar, Jiahua Pan, I created 6 ingredients for an ecological civilization…

Six ingredients for a more resilient future: “An Ecological Civilization is the Renaissance We’ve Been Waiting For,” from @SpencerRScott.

* James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games


As we think systemically, we might spare a thought for Guillaume Amontons; he died on this date in 1705.  A physicist who made formative contributions to the understanding of friction, he was also an accomplished designer of scientific instruments– perhaps most notably, the air thermometer, which relies on increase in volume of a gas (rather than a liquid) to measure temperature.  His approach led to the emergence of the concept of “absolute zero” (long before the advent of cryogenics). These days, there’s more attention at the other end of the scale…

amonton thermometer




“If you’re shopping for a home entertainment system you can’t do better than a good dissecting microscope”*…


Harris P. Mosher lecturing at Harvard Medical School in 1929, with a giant skull made in the 1890s

In their introduction to the book version of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, Philip and Phyllis Morrison wrote elegantly of the importance of the evolution of the tools of science to scientific progress.  It’s the continuous improvement in these “instruments of vision” that pushes back the frontiers of knowledge, and allows us to know, ultimately to understand, more and more of the universe around us.  In an essential way, then, the history of scientific tools is the history of science.

Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments allows one literally to browse through that history.

The permanent collection includes over 20,000 instruments and artifacts, (including an incredible collection of  microscopes, partially pictured above).

Now through December 5, the Collection is mounting “Body of Knowledge,” an exhibition that focuses on the devices, publications, and tools that have contributed to our (still-)expanding understanding of the human body.

The title page of Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 anatomy textbook, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), depicting a public dissection.

It includes a copy of Vesalius’s masterpiece (as above) and anatomical models (the 78-inch-tall skull shown at the top of this post, plus a 48-in-long skeleton of a foot).  In all, it showcases the social and cultural practices of anatomy through the centuries.

For more background on the Collection, visit its site, and check out this Harvard Magazine piece; for more on the exhibit, click here and here.  Browse the collection (from whence, all of the images above) here.

* Jack Longino


As we polish our lens, we might send birthday greetings in the form of a question to Jeopardy; the brainchild of talk-show host and game show maven Merv Griffin, it was first broadcast on this date 50 years ago, in 1964.  At sign-on, Jeopardy was an afternoon game show hosted by Art Fleming; after a decade before dinner, it moved after, as a weekly syndicated show.  Then, in 1984, the syndicated version got a facelift– Fleming was replaced by Alex Trebek– and the show went nightly…  where it’s prospered ever since.





Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 30, 2014 at 1:01 am

Quod Erat Demonstrandum…

Barlow’s Wheel
St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland
Today we remember Peter Barlow (1776-1862) for his mathematical tables, the Barlow Lens, and Barlow’s Wheel (1822). Electric current passes through the wheel from the axle to a mercury contact on the rim. The interaction of the current with the magnetic field of a U-magnet laid flat on the baseplate causes the wheel to rotate. Note that the presence of serrations on the wheel is unnecessary.

Thomas Greenslade, a professor emeritus at Kenyon, has a passion for the devices that have been used over the years to teach the principles of physics.  Happy for us, he is willing to share: there are hundreds of fascinating exhibits like the one above at “Instruments for Natural Philosophy.”

As we sit back under our apple trees, we might recall that it was on this date in 1790 that the first U.S. patent statute was signed into law by President Washington. Although a number of inventors had been clamoring for patents and copyrights (which were, of course, anticipated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution), the first session of the First Congress in 1789 acted on none of the petitions. On January 8, 1790, President Washington recommended in his State of the Union address that Congress give attention to the encouragement of new and useful inventions; and within the month, the House appointed a committee to draft a patent statute. Even then the process worked slowly: the first patent issued under this statute was signed by George Washington– on July 31, 1790, for Samuel Hopkins’ process to make potash and pearl ash.

It’s some measure of the power of IP to create value that, on this date in 1849, Walter Hunt of New York City was issued Patent No. 6,281– the first U.S. patent for a safety pin.  Strapped for cash, Hunt spent three hours on his invention, filed, then immediately sold the rights for the $400 that he needed.

The first U.S. patent, issued to Hopkins