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Archive for the ‘Common-Place Book’ Category


Catherine the Great : Old Earther

Posted by jns on July 6, 2011

Catherine the Great (1729–1796) speaking to Volatire (1694–1778) on the subject of woolly mammoth carcasses found in Siberian permafrost:

What proves, I think, that the world is a little older than our nurses tell us are the finds of bones of elephants long ago extinct embedded in the ground in northern Siberia”

[quoted in Mariana Gosnell, Ice : The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; p. 233.]

At the time she would have said this it was not yet commonly understood that fossils were the remains of extinct species, and the Earth was still commonly thought to be about 6,000 years old, as her nurses might have told her.


Balancing Basic & Applied Research

Posted by jns on April 26, 2011

The transistor, the LED, and the medical isotope technetium-99m are important applications of science, yet as far as I know none of them was invented as the result of a government initiative to fund industrially relevant research.

The transistor was invented at Bell Labs. The LED was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and technetium-99m was discovered—and its usefulness to medicine recognized—at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

My short list is not meant to buttress an argument that governments shouldn’t fund applied, goal-directed research. They should. The challenge lies is striking the right balance between basic and applied research. If a government overemphasizes applied research, it risks depriving basic researchers of the funds they need to make discoveries and inventions that could prove industrially important.

[from Charles Day, "Striking the right balance between basic and applied research", The Dayside, 21 April 2011.]


It Does Take Some Thought

Posted by jns on September 30, 2010

“Think of a single problem confronting the world today,” says Bill Bryson, in full rhetorical flow. “Disease, poverty, global warming… If the problem is going to be solved, it is science that is going to solve it. Scientists tend to be unappreciated in the world at large, but you can hardly overstate the importance of the work they do. If anyone ever cures cancer, it will be a guy with a science degree.” There is a fractional pause, then a sheepish smile. “Or a woman with a science degree.”
“You don’t need a science degree to understand about science,” [Bryson] insists. “You just need to think about it.”

[Max Davidson, "Bill Bryson: 'Have faith, science can solve our problems' ", Telegraph [UK], 26 September 2010.]


Gullibility’s Price

Posted by jns on June 13, 2010

From Bob Park’s What’s New for 11 June 2010:

According to a story in The Independent (UK) on Tuesday, the investigation into the sale of fake bomb detectors has been expanded to a number of firms in the UK. It seemed comical fourteen years ago when we learned that golfers were buying fraudulent golf-ball finders (WN 12 Jan 96). The Quadro Tracker was nothing but an “antenna” mounted on a pistol-grip with a swivel that was free to rotate 360°. An almost imperceptible deviation of the swivel from horizontal would cause the antenna to rotate under the force of gravity to its lowest point. To a credulous observer it might seem to be controlled by some mysterious external force. Quadro soon began marketing them to law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense for $995 each to search for drugs and weapons. It failed a simple scientific test. Sandia National Labs took one apart and found it contained no internal parts. The FBI shut Quadro down and arrested its officers (WN 26 Jan 96). However, the device soon reappeared in the UK as the ADE 651, sold by ATSC for prices as high as $48,000. At least 1,500 were sold to the government of Iraq as bomb detectors at a cost of millions of dollars, as WN reported in January (WN 29 Jan 2010). The fake bomb detectors have reportedly contributed to hundreds of bomb deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including British and American troops.

In spite of the heinous nature of the ATSC crime, it may be difficult to
obtain a conviction. The defense of those charged with selling fake bomb detectors will be that they believe the devices work. Their defense will point to the hundreds or thousands of people who openly market their services to dowse for water or other substances. Sometimes called water-witching, dowsing is said to rely on supernatural influence over the muscles of the person holding a willow fork or an ADE 651. Dowsing doesn’t always work, but what does? The prosecution will find itself hip deep in arguments over how an ADE 651 differs from prayer. Magical thinking will be with us until children are taught that observable effects result only from physical causes. It must be taught at the time they are learning their first language.


It’s Cool that No One’s in Charge

Posted by jns on April 20, 2010

I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody’s going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you’re here. And when you don’t, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I’m performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody’s going to take care of us, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That’s community.

The fiction of continuity and stability that your parents have painted for you is totally necessary for a growing child. When you realize that it’s not the way the world works, it’s a chilling moment. It’s supremely lonely.

So I understand the desire for someone to be in charge. (As a side note, I believe that the need for conspiracy theories is similar to the need for God.) We’d all like our good and evil to be like it is in the movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it’s not. It’s banal.


No one is in charge. And honestly, that’s even cooler.

The idea of an ordered and elegant universe is a lovely one. One worth clinging to. But you don’t need religion to appreciate the ordered existence. It’s not just an idea, it’s reality. We’re discovering the hidden orders of the universe every day. The inverse square law of gravitation is amazing. Fractals, the theory of relativity, the genome: these are magnificently beautiful constructs.

The nearly infinite set of dominoes that have fallen into each other in order for us to be here tonight is unfathomable. Truly unfathomable. But it is logical. We don’t know all the steps in that logic, but we’re learning more about it every day. Learning, expanding our consciousness, singly and universally.

As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren’t helping in that mission.

For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual (the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.

Now, just to be clear. If you want to believe, or find solace in believing, that someone or something set these particular dominoes in motion—a cosmic finger tipping the balance and then leaving everything else to chance—I can’t say anything to that. I don’t know.

Though a primary mover is the most complex and thus (given Occam’s razor) the least likely of all possible solutions to the particular problem of how we got here, I can’t prove it true or false, and there’s nothing to really discuss about it.

If Daniel Dennett is right— that there’s a human genetic need for religion— then I’d like to imagine that my atheism is proof of evolutionary biology in action.

[excerpt from Adam Savage, "Food for the Eagle", speaking to the Harvard Humanist Society, April 2010.]


Attenborough on Creationism

Posted by jns on March 12, 2009

Sir David Attenborough has revealed that he receives hate mail from viewers for failing to credit God in his documentaries. In an interview with this week’s Radio Times about his latest documentary, on Charles Darwin and natural selection, the broadcaster said: “They tell me to burn in hell and good riddance.”

Telling the magazine that he was asked why he did not give “credit” to God, Attenborough added: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”

Attenborough went further in his opposition to creationism, saying it was “terrible” when it was taught alongside evolution as an alternative perspective. “It’s like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five … Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066.”

[Riazat Butt, "Attenborough reveals creationist hate mail for not crediting God", Guardian [UK], 27 January 2009.]


What Would It Have Looked Like?

Posted by jns on August 25, 2008

Spending a bit of time online with Richard Dawkins (I was spending time with him whereas he spent no time with me–the net works that way), I listened to a reasonably interesting TED talk in which Dawkins talked about how our perceptions of reality are shaped by the evolution of our brains to help us get around in the universe at the size that we are.

That’s interesting enough, but what I want to preserve here is this perceptive and useful little exchange ascribed to the philosopher Wittgenstein, also on the subject of perceptions of reality and the “obvious”. It’s a lovely mini-drama and a useful point to remember.

Wittgenstein: Tell me, why do people always say it was “natural” for man to assume that the Sun went ’round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?

Friend: Well, obviously, because it just looks as though the Sun is going ’round the Earth.

Wittgenstein: Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?

[Richard Dawkins, "Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science", TED talk, July 2005.]


Park’s Leap-Day Look at Science & Non-Science

Posted by jns on February 29, 2008

Bob Park seems reinvigorated by all the science-silliness and some non-silliness going on that he reports in the latest (29 February) edition of “What’s New“. (Subscription information here.) Between feeling lazy and amused, I decided to include it all!

Technology makes us arrogant. A 28-mile pilot project for a high-tech “virtual fence” south of Tucson, which cost $100M, is now acknowledged to be a failure. The history of the world is a story of fences that failed: the Great Wall of China, the Red Sea, the Berlin Wall, Robert McNamara’s electronic wall dividing Vietnam, followed by the horror of Agent Orange. Securing the 2,000 mile border was expected to cost $7.6B; the estimate will now go up. But desperate people will find a way in spite of obstacles. By contrast, the border with Canada remains unsecured. Why would Canadians want to come here? About 200,000 illegal immigrants enter from Mexico each year. For $7.6B we could pay them $38,000 each to stay in Mexico. We would all be better off.

Last week WN reported the happy news that the Board of Education had approved science standards that call for teaching “the scientific theory of evolution.” As Harold Kroto, 1996 Nobel Prize and professor of chemistry at Florida State, put it, “The phrase ‘scientific theory’ gives us the leverage to differentiate between theories that are supported by evidence and those that aren’t.” It also pleased a conservative legislator who was happy it wasn’t called a “scientific fact.” Scientists should make it a point to distinguish between “scientific theory” and biblical revelation, which is “not even a theory.” It never ends; legislation is now being considered that would allow criticisms of evolution to be taught.

A strong editorial in today’s issue of Nature warns that the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which moved from San Diego to Dallas last year, has applied to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to grant online master’s degrees in science education. An advisory board has recommended acceptance. Founded by Henry Morris in 1972, the ICR regards the Bible as an inerrant source of scientific and historical fact. The Board had been expected to vote on the application in January, but requested additional information. The vote is now expected at the boards 24 April meeting. Steven Weinberg, Physics Nobel 1979, who five years ago defended the rights of Texas school children to learn the natural laws that govern our existence http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN03/wn091903.html , has urged the board to deny accreditation to the Creation Research Institute. Every Texas scientist should do the same.

Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the Pew survey finds a changing landscape. More than a quarter of Americans have left the faith they were born in. Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses. Is there any indication that Americans are becoming more rational? Perhaps. About a fourth of those who are unaffiliated describe themselves as atheist or agnostic.


Bodin on Heliocentrism

Posted by jns on February 27, 2008

After Copernicus published De Revolutionibus in 1543, acceptance of the idea that the Earth orbited the Sun was neither immediate nor universal. Some appealed to common sense:

No one in his senses, or imbued with the slightest knowledge of physics will ever think that the earth, heavy and unwieldy from its own weight and mass, staggers up and down around its own centre and that of the sun; for at the slightest jar of the earth, we would see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down.
– Jean Bodin (1529–1596), quoted in Peter Watson, Ideas, (New York : HarperCollins, 2005), p. 517

Isn’t it interesting how some common sense becomes uncommon.


Why Pi?

Posted by jns on September 23, 2007

As a little gloss to the previous entry on calculating \pi, I’m finally reading the entertaining and enlightening article “The Quest for Pi” and find this unique observation after asking why people persist in calculating π to billions of digits:

Certainly there is no need for computing π to millions or billions of digits in practical scientific or engineering work. A value of \pi to 40 digits would be more than enough to compute the circumference of the Milky Way galaxy to an error less than the size of a proton.

[David H. Bailey, Jonathan M. Borwein, Peter B. Borwein, and Simon Plouffe, "The Quest for Pi", Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 19, no. 1 (Jan. 1997), pp. 50–57; reprint available online.]