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Posts Tagged ‘science’

09 APRIL, 2012

How Long Is a Piece of String? BBC and Comedian Alan Davies Explore Quantum Mechanics

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Making sense of 319.44 millimeters of infinity.

The fine folks at BBC’s Horizon series have previously explored such intriguing topics as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, the volatile history of chemistry, and what time really is.

In How Long is a Piece of String?, they enlist standup-comic-turned-physics-enthusiast Alan Davies in answering the seemingly simple question of the film’s title, only to find in it a lens — a very blurry lens — on the very fabric of reality. Along the way, Davies asks some of the world’s top scientists to measure his piece of string, gets repeatedly discombobulated by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (he of The Number Mysteries fame), and turns to quantum mechanics to try to work out where the individual atoms and particles that make up the string actually are. The result is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Your string does not actually possess a length. Somehow, by measuring it, we create a length for the string.

The matter of everybody in the world, the whole of the human race, amounts to a sugar cube. The rest is just space.

Reality, in some sense, does not exist unless we’re actually observing it. And it’s our act of observation that makes things real.

For a deeper dive into these most fascinating frontiers of human thought, you won’t go wrong with Brian Cox’s The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen.

@kirstinbutler

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06 APRIL, 2012

What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions

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“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology,” Carl Sagan famously quipped in 1994, “and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Little seems to have changed in the nearly two decades since, and although the government is now actively encouraging “citizen science,” for many “citizens” the understanding of — let alone any agreement about — what science is and does remains meager.

So, what exactly is science, what does it aspire to do, and why should we the people care? It seems like a simple question, but it’s an infinitely complex one, the answer to which is ever elusive and contentious. Gathered here are several eloquent definitions that focus on science as process rather than product, whose conduit is curiosity rather than certainty.

Stuart Firestein writes in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he appeared on the Bill Moyers show in 1988 and shared some timeless, remarkably timely insights on creativity in science and education:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.

Carl Sagan echoed the same sentiment when he remarked:

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

In a letter to Hans Mühsam dated July 9th, 1951, an elderly Albert Einstein observed:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

In his recent New York Review of Books piece on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, Freeman Dyson offers:

All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, articulated the same idea in 1964 in the first volume of his iconic Mythologiques collection of cultural anthropology:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

In the fantastic A General Theory of Love, psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon give this beautiful definition:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world.

This element of wonder and whimsy also comes through in the words of iconic physicist and mathematician Max Born (thanks, Joe):

Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already possess it.

In his iconic book On Human Nature, which should be required reading for all, the great biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson observed:

The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.

In 1894, upon having received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother:

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…

Curie also likely inspired this interpretation of her famous words on the essence of the scientific ethos:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Richard Feynman would have nodded in agreement. Einstein certainly did when he observed:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

This comes full-circe to Firestein’s book on ignorance, where he asserts:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

But hardly anyone captures the essence and ethos of science more eloquently than The Great Explainer. In 1966, the National Science Teachers Association asked the great Richard Feynman to give an address that answers the question, “What is science?” The answer comes true to character:

And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.

After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:

A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.

Later in the speech, Feynman hones a more answer-like answer:

[I]f you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it — although possibly not every time.

Later:

[Science] teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true.

He closes with a keen point for his audience of professional science educators:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

Science, then, necessitates a certain comfort with being wrong, a tolerance for the fear of failure — perhaps cultivating that capacity is an essential prerequisite not only for science but also for the basic appreciation of science.

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05 APRIL, 2012

Hidden Treasure: 10 Centuries of Visualizing the Body in Rare Archival Images

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What vintage nurse uniforms have to do with Darwin’s studies of animal emotions and Chinese war propaganda.

For the past 175 years, the The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda has been building the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera. With more than 17 million items spanning ten centuries, it’s a treasure trove of rare, obscure, extravagant wonders, most of which remain unseen by the public and unknown even to historians, librarians, and curators. Until now.

Hidden Treasure, following on the heels of The Art of Medicine, is an exquisite large-format volume that culls some of the most fascinating, surprising, beautiful, gruesome, and idiosyncratic objects from the Library’s collection in 450 full-color illustrations. From rare “magic lantern slides” doctors used to entertain and cure inmates at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane to astonishing anatomical atlases to the mimeographed report of the Japanese medical team first to enter Hiroshima after the atomic blast, each of the curious ephemera is contextualized in a brief essay by a prominent scholar, journalist, artist, collector, or physician. What results is a remarkable journey not only into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of the physicality of being human, but also into the evolution of librarianship itself, amidst the age of the digital humanities.

The Artificial Teledioptric Eye, or Telescope (1685-86) by Johann Zahn

Zahn's baroque diagram of the anatomy of vision (left) needs to be viewed in relation to his creation of a mechanical eye (right), the scioptric ball designed to project the image of the sun in a camera obscura

Printed book, 3 volumes

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), helene Flud Health Foundation

Left to right, top to bottom: Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

Jersey City, New Jersey. 93 color photographs, glossy

Mayerle's Lithographed International Test Chart (1907)

Optometrist George Mayerle combined an array of eye tests on a single chart that, he boasted, was 'accurate, artistic, ornamental, practical and reliable.' Marketing the chart to fellow practitioners, he promised that it 'makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.'

San Francisco. Lithograph with hand-colored swatches on cardboard.

Michael North, Jeffrey Reznick, and Michael Sappol remind us in the introduction:

It’s no secret that nowadays we look for libraries on the Internet — without moving from our desks or laptops or mobile phones… We’re in a new and miraculous age. But there are still great libraries, in cities and on campuses, made of brick, sandstone, marble, and glass, containing physical objects, and especially enshrining the book: the Library of Congress, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, the great university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And among them is the National LIbrary of Medicine in Bethesda, the world’s largest medical library, with its collection of over 17 million books, journals, manuscripts, prints, photographs, posters, motion pictures, sound recordings, and “ephemera” (pamphlets, matchbook covers, stereograph cards, etc.).

The Epitome (1953) by Andreas Vesalious

The fourth and fifth 'figure of muscles' conclude the illustrated/typographical dissection, showing more bone than muscle. They also present the anatomy of the head and brain.

Bound printed book, illustrated with woodcuts

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers (1772)

Muscles and attachments

Kaishi Hen. Kyoto, Japan. Printed woodblock book, color illustrations

Darwin Collection (1859-1903)

The expression of emotions in cats and dogs, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872)

London, New York, and other locations

(Also see how Darwin’s photographic studies of human emotions changed visual culture forever.)

Mechanics of the Human Walking Apparatus (1836)

Two figures provide a model of how the motions of running and springing can be accurately drawn.

Mechanik der menschlichen Gehwerkzeuge. Germany. Printed book with atlas containing lithographs.

Chinese Anti-Tuberculosis Flyers (1940s)

Flyers from a larger series of anti-tuberculosis flyers (Shanghai, 1940s and 1950s), Chinese Public Health Collection, National Library of Medicine

Civil War Surgical Card Collection (1860s)

The Army Medical Museum's staff mined incoming reports for 'interesting' cases -- such as a gunshot would to the 'left side of scalp, denuding skull' or 'gunshot would, right elbow with gangrene supervening' -- and cases that demonstrated the use of difficult surgical techniques, such as an amputation by circular incision or resection of the 'head of humerus and three inches of the left clavicle.'

Washington, DC. 146 numbered cards, with tipped-in photographs and case histories

Studies in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Connective Tissue (1875-76) by Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius

Arachnoid villi, or pacchionian bodies, of the human brain.

Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes. Stockholm. Printed book, with color and black-and-white lithographs, 2 volumes.

Anti-Germ Warfare Campaign Posters (ca. 1952), Second People's Cultural Institute

Hand-drawn Korean War propaganda posters, from two incomplete sequence in the collection of Chinese medical and health materials acquired by the National Library of Medicine

Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, China. Hand-inked and painted posters on paper.

Medical Trade Card Collection (ca. 1920-1940s)

The front of a Dr. Miles' Laxative Tablets movable, die-cut advertising novelty card, lowered and raised (Elkhart, Indiana, ca. 1910)

France, Great Britain, Mexico, United States, and other counties. Donor: William Helfand

Thoughtfully curated, beautifully produced, and utterly transfixing, Hidden Treasure unravels our civilization’s relationship with that most human of humannesses. Because try as we might to order the heavens, map the mind, and chart time in our quest to know the abstract, we will have failed at being human if we neglect this most fascinating frontier of concrete existence, the mysterious and ever-alluring physical body.

Images courtesy of Blast Books / National Library of Medicine

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