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Posts Tagged ‘science’

15 FEBRUARY, 2013

Galileo vs. God: The Father of Modern Science on Religion, Truth, and Human Nature


“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

“As I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame,” Richard Feynman famously wrote in lamenting the “actively, intensely unscientific” state of mainstream culture. But true and tragic as that might be to a degree, we owe much of the enormous scientific progress we’ve made in the past millennium to Galileo himself, father of modern science. It seems fitting, in light of the recent historic papal resignation, to revisit Galileo’s monumental impact on the rift between science and religion as he dethroned Earth from the center of the heavens with his discovery of heliocentrism, sparking the Scientific Revolution.

In 1615, as the Roman Inquisition was beginning to investigate his heretical heliocentric model of the universe, Galileo — who knew how to flatter his way to support — wrote to Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. The lengthy letter, found in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (public library), explores the relationship between science and scripture. Galileo bemoans his critics who “remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer” and follows the three rules to refuting any argument that Susan Sontag would outline half a millennium later, making an eloquent case for why blind adherence to sacred texts shouldn’t be used to disarm the validity of scientific truth.

He begins:

To the Most Serene Grand Duchess Mother:

Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction.

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill-suited to their purposes.


These men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply with little judgement to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.

Galileo laments a tendency of the human spirit to more easily rally around bullying than around celebrating, something we’ve seen compounded by the anonymity of the web today. He writes:

It is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement.

Condemning the practice of taking biblical passages at face value without critical thinking and deeper semantic reflection — something that persists even today in matters of creationism vs. evolution and marriage equality — Galileo argues, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did five centuries later, that abandoning reason and evidence is a sign of both spiritual and intellectual laziness:

Now as to the false aspersions which they so unjustly seek to cast upon me, I have thought it necessary to justify myself in the eyes of all men, whose judgment in matters of religion and of reputation I must hold in great esteem. I shall therefore discourse of the particulars which these men produce to make this opinion detested and to have it condemned not merely as false but as heretical. To this end they make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters — where faith is not involved — they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense.


Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.

He stresses the importance of interpreters and sense-makers in extracting truth from scripture, admonishing against the tendency to form an opinion because it is popular and thus easy, rather than because it is wise:

People who are unable to understand perfectly both the Bible and the science far outnumber those who do understand them. The former, glancing superficially through the Bible, would arrogate to themselves the authority to decree upon every question of physics on the strength of some word which they have misunderstood, and which was employed by the sacred authors for some different purpose. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

Speaking to the same friction between “the Truth of the Universe” and “human truth” that Einstein and Tagore debated centuries later, Galileo points out that rather than an antidote to the divine, nature itself is a manifestation of divinity:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.

At the heart of Galileo’s argument is a reminder that it is ignorance that drives knowledge; he writes:

Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that ‘Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know.’


Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: “That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

Of those who tend to conflate opinion with fact, Galileo admonishes:

Let them freely admit that although they may argue that a position is false, it is not in their power to censure a position as erroneous.

Sharing in the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s famous words“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Galileo calls for standing by personal convictions even when they prove unpopular amongst the masses:

In my opinion no one … should close the road to free philosophizing about mundane and physical things, as if everything had already been discovered and revealed with certainty. Nor should it be considered rash not to be satisfied with those opinions which have become common. No one should be scorned in physical disputes for not holding to the opinions which happen to please other people best…

In the concluding paragraphs, Galileo admonishes against confirmation bias and the filter bubble of information that causes an echo chamber of opinion for those who would rather be self-righteous than fully understand:

Those who believe an argument to be false may much more easily find the fallacies in it than men who consider it to be true and conclusive. … The more the adherents of an opinion turn over their pages, examine the arguments, repeat the observations, and compare the experiences, the more they will be confirmed in that belief.

Complement this with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Pale Blue Dot: A Timeless Valentine to the Cosmos


“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft — which carried The Golden Record, Carl Sagan’s love letter to Annie Druyan — turned its revolutionary camera around and took the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” photograph that later inspired the famous Sagan monologue of the same title. The image, composed of 640,000 individual pixels, depicts Earth, a mere 12% of a single pixel, at the center of a scattered ray of light resulting from taking an image this close to the Sun. It endures, even in an age when the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance, as a timeless Valentine to the cosmos.

The Pale Blue Dot: Captured from 3.7 billion miles away, Earth appears as a tiny dot halfway down the orange stripe on the right.

Image: NASA / JPL

The “Pale Blue Dot” was part of a Family Portrait series of images exploring the Solar System.

The Family Portrait: These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the Solar System taken by Voyager 1 at 3.7 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Image: NASA / JPL

But we owe the actual recognition of Earth in the legendary photograph to Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, one of the two University of Arizona scientists who developed the command sequence that controlled the timing for each photograph’s exposure. That day, she was sitting in front of a computer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab with her shades drawn when she noticed the tiny speck on an image sent back by the camera she had helped design, which was now 4 billion miles away. She told NPR a few years ago:

It was just a little dot, about two pixels big, three pixels big, so not very large. … You know, I still get chills down my back because here was our planet, bathed in this ray of light, and it just looked incredibly special.

The Pale Blue Dot: This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.

Image: NASA / JPL

And yet photograph almost never happened — the NASA imaging team feared that aiming the camera at the Sun would damage it. But Sagan himself lobbied long and hard for an attempt. Vice Adm. Richard Truly, former head of NASA, recalls:

I did get a visit from Carl Sagan. We talked about a lot of things. And somewhere in that conversation he mentioned this idea. I thought, heck, with Voyager so far away, if it could turn around and take a picture of the different planets including the Earth, that that would really be cool. And so I was a great advocate of it, although I can’t take any credit for it.

(Those were the golden days when NASA made historic decisions simply because something seemed “cool.”)

Fortunately, it did happen. And four years later, Carl Sagan wrote of the iconic image in the preface to his book titled after it, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (public library):

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

Image: NASA

But Sagan’s beautiful and timeless words might not be entirely his own — perhaps a manifestation of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insights on memory and (inadvertent) plagiarism. As historian Robert Poole notes in Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (public library), after the equally iconic Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, the poet Archibald MacLeish penned an essay ‘Riders on the Earth,’ in which he articulated a strikingly similar sentiment:

For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.

The essay appeared in The New York Times on Christmas Day that year.

Then again, the similarity in language might simply be an inevitable expression of the overview effect. Whatever the case, the “Pale Blue Dot” endures as a sublimely beautiful cosmic Valentine that reminds us, more than two decades later, of the ineffable relativity of our human scale.

Celebrate the “Pale Blue Dot” and its legacy with some stunning animated adaptations of Sagan’s words.

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13 FEBRUARY, 2013

A Visualization of Global “Brain Drain” in Science Inspired by Abstract Art


Mapping the global flow of scientific talent by way of Mondrian and Kandinsky.

After their wonderful visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction and visual history of the Nobel Prize, Italian information visualization designer Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat are back with another exclusive English version of a piece they originally designed for La Lettura, the Sunday literary supplement of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera — this time exploring the phenomenon of global “brain drain” in science, with an eye towards understanding the reasons why researchers might choose to leave their countries of origin and pursue careers elsewhere.

(Click to enlarge)

Combining three sets of data — a World Bank survey, results from a research paper titled Foreign Born Scientists: Mobility Patterns for Sixteen Countries, and The Times’ ranking of the world’s best universities — they contrasted the number of researchers per million people (y-axis) with the percentage of the country’s GDP devoted to scientific R&D (x-axis). Also displayed are unemployment rate, female employment rate, percentages of foreigners and emigrants in population, emigrant researchers, and emigrant researchers returning to their country of origin. The background arcs map where scientists come from and where they go.

Some surprising and counterintuitive patterns emerge: Japan, held as a paragon of technological innovation, actually attracts very few foreign researchers. Denmark, despite a GDP budget significantly larger, doesn’t do too much better than countries like Belgium, France and Germany. Canada, Australia, the United States, and Switzerland attract — and export — the greatest number of scientists. Also apparent is that researchers move around much more than the average person — the red and blue solid histograms are longer than the hollow ones — except in Latin countries like Spain and Italy, whose economies are more strongly tied to the construction industry and thus might require the import of more workers with lower levels of education. Higher female employment is also correlated with attracting more foreign researchers.

But what makes the project particularly fascinating is its cross-disciplinary inspiration: The idea came to Lupi after a recent visit to MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction exhibition. She tells me:

Abstract art and data visualization are related indeed in terms of visual languages, colors and lines to create compositions which can exist even independently from visual references in the world. I [wanted] to come up with a data visualization able to replay that very geometric feeling, pleasant aesthetic and colors’ related flavor I had throughout my whole visit, passing by Mondrian’s, Malevich’s, and Kandinsky’s pieces. … It immediately occurred to me that each of the countries we were analysing data on, should have been represented as a compound complex element, the parameters of which should have been visually related by the positioning, rotation and spatial correlation of those geometrical shapes I was sketching down.

Her entire approach is remarkable:

[For me,] the search for inspiration in unusual contexts is not a mere divertissement, but should be intended as an attempt to analyze the aesthetic qualities of things that are naturally pleasant to the eye, in order to understand how they can be abstracted and re-used as core principles and guidelines in building visual compositions.

This is why, when I’m sketching the things that happen to attract my curiosity, I always try to find a way to interpret both the single visual elements and the overall composition as construction blocks, iconic ingredients for other recipes.

I always ask myself what I would like to read from the shapes, colors and arrangement, trying to understand how their visual quality can be transferred to a different meaning. … If these rules are working in that context, there should be a way to apply them to the things I’m working on. It doesn’t work all the times, but when it does it really leads to unexpected epiphanies. … The things that inspired me work only when I’m able to re-apply the principles behind them to another context.

Like many famous creators, she relies on her sketchbook:

I’m in fact mainly attracted by balance, repetition and composition: I’m getting used to always keep a sketchbook with me, because I learned that I can really understand the patterns that I see in reality only when I try to reproduce them on paper. The very act of reproduction introduces a level of abstraction that helps focus on the aspects of the composition that caught my attention.

See more of Giorgia’s terrific work on her site, then complement it with some visualization lessons from the world’s top information designers and data artists.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.