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Posts Tagged ‘scientific method

“Facts alone, no matter how numerous or verifiable, do not automatically arrange themselves into an intelligible, or truthful, picture of the world. It is the task of the human mind to invent a theoretical framework to account for them.”*…

PPPL physicist Hong Qin in front of images of planetary orbits and computer code

… or maybe not. A couple of decades ago, your correspondent came across a short book that aimed to explain how we think know what we think know, Truth– a history and guide of the perplexed, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (then, a professor of history at Oxford; now, at Notre Dame)…

According to Fernández-Armesto, people throughout history have sought to get at the truth in one or more of four basic ways. The first is through feeling. Truth is a tangible entity. The third-century B.C. Chinese sage Chuang Tzu stated, ”The universe is one.” Others described the universe as a unity of opposites. To the fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the cosmos is a tension like that of the bow or the lyre. The notion of chaos comes along only later, together with uncomfortable concepts like infinity.

Then there is authoritarianism, ”the truth you are told.” Divinities can tell us what is wanted, if only we can discover how to hear them. The ancient Greeks believed that Apollo would speak through the mouth of an old peasant woman in a room filled with the smoke of bay leaves; traditionalist Azande in the Nilotic Sudan depend on the response of poisoned chickens. People consult sacred books, or watch for apparitions. Others look inside themselves, for truths that were imprinted in their minds before they were born or buried in their subconscious minds.

Reasoning is the third way Fernández-Armesto cites. Since knowledge attained by divination or introspection is subject to misinterpretation, eventually people return to the use of reason, which helped thinkers like Chuang Tzu and Heraclitus describe the universe. Logical analysis was used in China and Egypt long before it was discovered in Greece and in India. If the Greeks are mistakenly credited with the invention of rational thinking, it is because of the effective ways they wrote about it. Plato illustrated his dialogues with memorable myths and brilliant metaphors. Truth, as he saw it, could be discovered only by abstract reasoning, without reliance on sense perception or observation of outside phenomena. Rather, he sought to excavate it from the recesses of the mind. The word for truth in Greek, aletheia, means ”what is not forgotten.”

Plato’s pupil Aristotle developed the techniques of logical analysis that still enable us to get at the knowledge hidden within us. He examined propositions by stating possible contradictions and developed the syllogism, a method of proof based on stated premises. His methods of reasoning have influenced independent thinkers ever since. Logicians developed a system of notation, free from the associations of language, that comes close to being a kind of mathematics. The uses of pure reason have had a particular appeal to lovers of force, and have flourished in times of absolutism like the 17th and 18th centuries.

Finally, there is sense perception. Unlike his teacher, Plato, and many of Plato’s followers, Aristotle realized that pure logic had its limits. He began with study of the natural world and used evidence gained from experience or experimentation to support his arguments. Ever since, as Fernández-Armesto puts it, science and sense have kept time together, like voices in a duet that sing different tunes. The combination of theoretical and practical gave Western thinkers an edge over purer reasoning schemes in India and China.

The scientific revolution began when European thinkers broke free from religious authoritarianism and stopped regarding this earth as the center of the universe. They used mathematics along with experimentation and reasoning and developed mechanical tools like the telescope. Fernández-Armesto’s favorite example of their empirical spirit is the grueling Arctic expedition in 1736 in which the French scientist Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis determined (rightly) that the earth was not round like a ball but rather an oblate spheroid…


One of Fernández-Armesto most basic points is that our capacity to apprehend “the truth”– to “know”– has developed throughout history. And history’s not over. So, your correspondent wondered, mightn’t there emerge a fifth source of truth, one rooted in the assessment of vast, ever-more-complete data maps of reality– a fifth way of knowing?

Well, those days may be upon us…

A novel computer algorithm, or set of rules, that accurately predicts the orbits of planets in the solar system could be adapted to better predict and control the behavior of the plasma that fuels fusion facilities designed to harvest on Earth the fusion energy that powers the sun and stars.

he algorithm, devised by a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), applies machine learning, the form of artificial intelligence (AI) that learns from experience, to develop the predictions. “Usually in physics, you make observations, create a theory based on those observations, and then use that theory to predict new observations,” said PPPL physicist Hong Qin, author of a paper detailing the concept in Scientific Reports. “What I’m doing is replacing this process with a type of black box that can produce accurate predictions without using a traditional theory or law.”

Qin (pronounced Chin) created a computer program into which he fed data from past observations of the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and the dwarf planet Ceres. This program, along with an additional program known as a ‘serving algorithm,’ then made accurate predictions of the orbits of other planets in the solar system without using Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. “Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data,” Qin said. “There is no law of physics in the middle.”

The process also appears in philosophical thought experiments like John Searle’s Chinese Room. In that scenario, a person who did not know Chinese could nevertheless ‘translate’ a Chinese sentence into English or any other language by using a set of instructions, or rules, that would substitute for understanding. The thought experiment raises questions about what, at root, it means to understand anything at all, and whether understanding implies that something else is happening in the mind besides following rules.

Qin was inspired in part by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s philosophical thought experiment that the universe is a computer simulation. If that were true, then fundamental physical laws should reveal that the universe consists of individual chunks of space-time, like pixels in a video game. “If we live in a simulation, our world has to be discrete,” Qin said. The black box technique Qin devised does not require that physicists believe the simulation conjecture literally, though it builds on this idea to create a program that makes accurate physical predictions.

This process opens up questions about the nature of science itself. Don’t scientists want to develop physics theories that explain the world, instead of simply amassing data? Aren’t theories fundamental to physics and necessary to explain and understand phenomena?

“I would argue that the ultimate goal of any scientist is prediction,” Qin said. “You might not necessarily need a law. For example, if I can perfectly predict a planetary orbit, I don’t need to know Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion. You could argue that by doing so you would understand less than if you knew Newton’s laws. In a sense, that is correct. But from a practical point of view, making accurate predictions is not doing anything less.”

Machine learning could also open up possibilities for more research. “It significantly broadens the scope of problems that you can tackle because all you need to get going is data,” [Qin’s collaborator Eric] Palmerduca said…

But then, as Edwin Hubble observed, “observations always involve theory,” theory that’s implicit in the particulars and the structure of the data being collected and fed to the AI. So, perhaps this is less a new way of knowing, than a new way of enhancing Fernández-Armesto’s third way– reason– as it became the scientific method…

The technique could also lead to the development of a traditional physical theory. “While in some sense this method precludes the need of such a theory, it can also be viewed as a path toward one,” Palmerduca said. “When you’re trying to deduce a theory, you’d like to have as much data at your disposal as possible. If you’re given some data, you can use machine learning to fill in gaps in that data or otherwise expand the data set.”

In either case: “New machine learning theory raises questions about nature of science.”

Francis Bello


As we experiment with epistemology, we might send carefully-observed and calculated birthday greetings to Georg Joachim de Porris (better known by his professional name, Rheticus; he was born on this date in 1514. A mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, navigational-instrument maker, medical practitioner, and teacher, he was well-known in his day for his stature in all of those fields. But he is surely best-remembered as the sole pupil of Copernicus, whose work he championed– most impactfully, facilitating the publication of his master’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres)… and informing the most famous work by yesterday’s birthday boy, Galileo.


“Immigrants, we get the job done”*…

When the Piccirilli Brothers arrived in New York from Italy in 1888, they brought with them skill, artistry, and passion for stone-carving unrivaled in the United States. At their studio at 467 East 142nd Street, in the Mott Haven Section of the Bronx, the brothers turned monumental slabs of marble into some of the nation’s recognizable icons, including the senate pediment of the US Capitol Building and the statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits resolutely in the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

The Piccirillis not only helped set our national narrative in stone but they also left an indelible mark on New York City. They carved hundreds of commissions around the five boroughs, including the 11 figures in the pediment of the New York Stock exchange, the “four continents” adorning the Customs House at Bowling Green, the two stately lions that guard the New York Public Library, both statues of George Washington for the Arch at Washington Square, and upwards of 500 individual carvings at Riverside Church…

The remarkable story of a remarkable family: “How six Italian immigrants from the South Bronx carved some of the nation’s most iconic sculptures.” 

* Lin-Manuel Miranda (as Hamilton, to Lafayette in Hamilton)


As we celebrate sculpture, we might wish a grateful Happy Birthday to another son of Italy, Galileo Galilei, the physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who, with Francis Bacon, pioneered the Scientific Method; he was born on this date in 1564.  It was Galileo’s observations that gave conclusive support to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system.

Tintoretto’s portrait of Galileo


“Don’t think, but look!”*…

The scene is London; the year, 1941. Ludwig Wittgenstein, likely the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, has taken a hiatus from his Cambridge professorship to do “war work” in a menial position at Guy’s Hospital. By the time he arrives there, in September, the worst of the Blitz is over, but there’s no way of knowing that—the bombing could begin again any night. Wittgenstein serves as a dispensary porter, meaning he pushes a big cart from ward to ward, delivering medicine to patients. He’s 52 years old, small and thin, not to say frail. He writes in a letter that sometimes after work he can “hardly move.”

To John Ryle, brother of Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein explains his reason for volunteering in London: “I feel I will die slowly if I stay there [in Cambridge]. I would rather take the chance of dying quickly.”

Wittgenstein’s time at Guy’s Hospital is an especially lonely period in a lonely life. Socially awkward in the extreme, he does not endear himself to his coworkers. Although it soon gets out, he initially hopes to conceal that he’s a professor in regular life, hating the prospect of being treated differently. But he is different. His attempts to hide in plain sight must strike everyone as yet another eccentricity.

Nevertheless, he makes at least one friend at the hospital, a fellow staffer named Roy Fouracre. After some time, Fouracre is permitted to visit Wittgenstein in his room, a rare privilege with the reclusive philosopher. Crossing the threshold into Wittgenstein’s private quarters, Fouracre must expect to find books everywhere, hefty, awe-inspiring tomes by Aristotle and Kant and the like. Nothing of the sort. The only reading material in evidence is “neat piles of detective magazines.”

Those magazines would have been American detective pulps, the kind that chronicled the adventures of Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and other hardboiled heroes. During the last two decades of his life, Wittgenstein read such fiction compulsively. But what drew him to detective stories, and to American hardboiled ones in particular? How did a man engaged in a fundamental reform of philosophy—no less than an overhaul of how we think and talk about the world—develop such a passion for pulps?…

How pulp magazines inspired Wittgenstein’s investigations of the mysteries of language: “The Philosopher of the Detectives- Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction.”

For more on Wittgenstein’s thought, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article; for more on his life, this engaging biography.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we “only describe, don’t explain,” we might spare a thought for Henri-Louis Bergson; he died on this date in 1941.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding of reality…. many, but not Wittgenstein (nor Russell, Moore, nor Santayana), who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.


“Blessed be you, mighty matter”*…



The existence of anyons was inferred from quantum topology — the novel properties of shapes made by quantum systems


Every particle in the universe — from a cosmic ray to a quark — is either a fermion or a boson. These categories divide the building blocks of nature into two distinct kingdoms… or so we thought.  Now researchers have discovered the first examples of a third particle kingdom…

Anyons, as they’re known, don’t behave like either fermions or bosons; instead, their behavior is somewhere in the middle. In a recent paper published in Science, physicists have found the first experimental evidence that these particles don’t fit into either kingdom. “We had bosons and fermions, and now we’ve got this third kingdom,” said Frank Wilczek, a Nobel prize–winning physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s absolutely a milestone.”…

Rethinking the substance of reality…  More on these newly-identified building blocks at “‘Milestone’ Evidence for Anyons, a Third Kingdom of Particles.”

* “Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.”   — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe


As we examine existence, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use.  He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum



Written by LW

June 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Peer review as practiced today is a form of hazing”*…



Cuneiform Letter from the astrologer Marduk-šapik-zeri to the Neo-Assyrian king Esarhaddon

The advance of science depends on the communications of research and experimental findings so that they can be, first, replicated and verified or refuted; then broadly understood by the scientific community.  Historically, that communication has depended largely on scientific journals, the primary vehicles of that dissemination.  The integrity of the system has depended on the peer-review process:  the examination of scientific papers submitted for journal publication by a jury of “peers” (in practice, usually very senior practitioners of the discipline in question) who evaluate the methodology and findings being reported and pass on whether or not they are “publishable.”

With the advent of the web, this system is loosening.  Scientists are sharing “pre-prints” in sites like arXiv, reaching around the journals’ referees to reach their communities at large.  Still, the feedback that they get is a form of peer review…

While we tend to date the birth of the scientific method, and this approach, to the early 17th century and the thinking of Bacon and Descartes, archaeologists suggest that the approach might have have much deeper roots…

In some respects, the life of a Mesopotamian scholar in the seventh century B.C. was not so very different from that of a modern academic. While the former might be responsible for reporting on celestial phenomena and whether they augur well for the king’s reign, and the latter might be searching for evidence of a new subatomic particle to better understand the origins of the universe, in either case, one’s reputation among colleagues is paramount.

Let’s take, for example, the lot of an unnamed astrologer who was subjected to a vicious onslaught of peer review from some of the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s top minds after claiming to have sighted Venus around 669 B.C. In a letter to the king Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.), a fellow stargazer named Nabû-ahhe-eriba, who was part of the inner circle of royal scholars, inveighed, “(He who) wrote to the king, my lord, ‘The planet Venus is visible, it is visible (in the month Ad)ar,’ is a vile man, an ignoramus, a cheat!” Slightly more charitable, though still cutting, was a scholar named Balasî, who tutored the crown prince Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.). “(T)he man who wrote (thus) to the king, (my lord), is in ignorance,” Balasî informed Esarhaddon. “The ig(noramus)—who is he?…I repeat: He does not understand (the difference) between Mercury and Venus.”

These quotations are excerpts from just two of around 1,000 letters and reports written by scholars to Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal in cuneiform on clay tablets that were discovered during nineteenth-century excavations of the archives of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, near Mosul in Iraq, including Ashurbanipal’s library…

The perils of peer review– what was old is new again: “Ancient academia.”

* John Hawks


As we contemplate constructive criticism, we might send repetitious birthday greetings to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie; he was born on this date in 1857.  A pharmacist who began practicing as a psychologist, Coué opened a clinic in Nancy, and introduced a method of psychotherapy characterized by frequent repetition of the formula, je vais de mieux en mieux, “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better”; he counseled his patients to repeat this 15 to 20 times, morning and evening. This method of autosuggestion came to be called Couéism, and was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. (Norman Vincent Peale’s brand of positive thinking was rooted in part in Coué’s work.)  The popular press raved about his approach, even as the medical and psychological establishment dismissed it.  And as the seemingly positive results he achieved with his patients faded– as they seemed for the most part to do– so did enthusiasm for the Coué method.  Still, one can hear its echo in approaches alive today, for instance neuro-linguistic programming.

A contemporary, Rev. Charles Inge, captured Coué’s simplistic method in a limerick (1928): “This very remarkable man / Commends a most practical plan: / You can do what you want / If you don’t think you can’t, / So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

220px-Émile_Coué_3 source


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