Tag Archives: science

2017-02-17: Glass Universe, The

The Glass Universe

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (2016)

by Data Sobel (1947-)

This is interesting to me for two reasons.

As a book about astronomy, it is very accessible, with its focus on the period from the mid-late 1800s to the 1940s (and a bit beyond). This period laid the foundation for our current view of the universe, and yet did not require any esoteric knowledge. It is almost completely devoid of relativity and quantum mechanics. For this reason it should be very accessible to any reader with an interest in the sky, with no special education required.

It is also the story of how women contributed to astronomical knowledge in the face of discrimination against their talents; their deserving of equal pay for the same work done by men; and their deserving of official recognition in the form of degrees, titles, official positions, and job security. In the face of such discrimination, it is also the story of key men who made possible the great achievements of certain women in astronomy.

I heartily recommend this book.

2017-01-27: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (2006)

by Janna Levin (1967-)

This novel (which I noticed due to her Black Hole Blues) is about two giants of 20th century mathematics: Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. By coincidence, I watched The Imitation Game (also about Turing) after I checked this out from the library, but before I read it.

I already knew the basics about Turing’s life, but practically nothing about Gödel’s. Though Turing’s life had a lot of sadness and ended sadly, at least he was happy when he was doing his best work. The impression from this book is that Gödel was pretty miserable most of his life.

I found the book interesting, but I would not recommend it unless you already have an interest in one or both of the subjects.

2017-01-27: Black Hole Blues

Black Hole Blues

and Other Songs from Outer Space (2016)

by Janna Levin (-)

This is a very interesting description of the long process of developing the first instrument to detect gravitational waves. At its core it is the story of Ron Drever, Rainer Weiss, and Kip Thorne; these are the three men who are likely to receive the Nobel Prize for this work. Levin finished the main part of the book as the instrument was on the verge of its first observations, and added a section describing them.

I especially liked chapter 6, which I asked Susan to read. It is really about about science in general, and the ways scientists work.

I was impressed enough with Levin’s work that I read two other books: How The Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

2016-10-15: The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012)

by David George Haskell (? – )

This is an excellent book for those interested in nature, in the tradition of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Haskell spends a year closely observing a very small patch of old-growth forest, and reporting what he sees, hears, smells, and feels. The book has around 40 chapters, each tagged with a date and a particular slice of the forest he sees: February 28th – Salamander; July 2nd – Fungi; November 21st – Twigs.

I found something interesting in every chapter, and in the theme running through them all: the interconnectedness of the web of life. A couple of passages I want to remember come from December 3rd – Litter, and from the Epilogue.

As he explores the forest’s leaf litter, dominated by fungi, and the interdependence among fungi, trees, and other species, he says:

… it is clear that the old “red in tooth and claw” view of the natural economy has to be updated. We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes, fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work, thus propelling their intellectual “competitors” onward. Our minds are like trees – they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.

After acknowledging Linnaeus and Leopold as his forebears he says this about the attraction of his close observation of his square meter “mandala”, and how many others in other environments might be observed:

We all differ in our ways of learning, so it is perhaps presumptuous of me to make suggestions for how to observe these mandalas But two insights from my experience seem worth sharing with those who would like to try. The first is to leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.

The second suggestion is to borrow from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly return the mind’s attention to the present moment. Our attention wanders, relentlessly. Bring it gently back. Over and over, seek out the sensory details: the particularities of sound, the feel and smell of the place, the visual complexities. This practice is not arduous, but it does take deliberate acts of the will.

The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We to are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time: our keen interest in fruits, meats, sugar, and salt; our obsession with social hierarchies, clans, and networks; our fascination with the aesthetics of human skin, hair, and bodily shapes; our incessant intellectual curiosity and ambition. Each one of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity and depth as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, Have come to see myself more clearly.

part of what we discover by observing ourselves is an affinity for the world around us. The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance.

Haskell has posted a gallery of photos from the site: https://theforestunseen.com/gallery/

2009-01-23: The Life of the Cosmos

The Life of the Cosmos (1997)

by Lee Smolin (1955-)

This book is about Smolin’s ideas about cosmology, and how they relate to philosophical notions at large in the world, and how the relate to philosophical ideas of the past. It is very interesting. Much of it is technical (but without math), so I won’t try to relate the ideas themselves. Instead I’ll mostly quote a few passages that resonated with me.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 8:

No matter how smart she is, no matter how modern her methods and how tricky her reasoning, a detective cannot be a good detective unless in the end the bad guys are found out. It is the same with science. Why science works is perhaps a mystery, but it does work, and often enough, those of us who do it are content with the notion that, in the end, the only true measure of what we do is the extent to which it stands up against test by observation and experiment. In fact, the experience of most scientists is that most of our ideas turn out, in the end, to be wrong. Many ideas never even get to the point of being testable before being discarded for other reasons. Perhaps one of the reasons that science progresses at all is that there are not a few of us, and we are a stubborn bunch.

In Chapter 12, The Cosmology of an Interesting Universe, he discusses one of his central ideas. Interesting systems are self-organizing, and not in thermal equilibrium. He contrasts them with system undergoing phase transitions, which take place at precise temperatures. Anoth feature of such interesting systems is that they have no particular size; in a sense they are fractal. These are called self-organized critical systems. :

All that is required is a system that is not in equilibrium because there is a flow of energy through it. … One reason why self-organized systems are often critical systems is that the process of self-organization is hierarchical. This is because the process by which the components of a system become interrelated through the formation of cycles can, once it is begun, repeat itself on a larger scale. Thus the system formed by the original components become  the components in a still larger system. In a sufficiently complex system one finds many layers of organization, each of which is tied together by the cycles and interrelationships that characterize stable self-organized systems. In the most complex system we know – the biosphere – there are at least eight such level of organization: the organelles of cells; the cells; the organs of a body; a plant or animal; a community of like organisms; a local ecosystem; a larger system such as a continent or ocean; and the biosphere as a whole. There are similarly many such levels in human society. Thus, a city has many interlocking levels of organization, which are reflected in the many scales over which itslife may be viewed.

Many of Smolin’s ideas are illustrated with reference to biology, sociology, philosophy or religion (the latter usually to show how it has stifled approaches to a more true understanding). Here’s an example from the beginning of Chapter 16.

When people speak of political change, they often speak of a rearrangement of the relationship between the individual and society. This is a euphemism, for society is an abstract concept that refers only to those human beings that are alive in one time and place. This is not to say that there are not hierarchies of organization in human society, but each interaction I have with any level of this hierarchy is really only an interaction with one or more people, even if the exchanges may be increasingly scripted as the hierarchy is ascended. What is then rearranged when society evolves is nothing other than the myriad of relationships between individual human beings.

In discussing the enormous problems in reconciling the ideas of quantum theory with the dynamical nature of space and time(Chapter 20), he says:

As so many examples from the history of this century attest to, human beings have a remarkable ability to live with crisis, to live even with unsupportable contradictions. And once we accommodate to something, and become used to it, it is often extremely difficult to imagine things could be any other way. This is perhaps the most difficult thing about any attempt to transform the world on any scale.

The final paragraph of the final chapter:

In the Peter Brook adaptation of the great Hindu saga The Mahabharata, the wise king Yudhishthira must, on penalty of the death of his family, answer a god who demands of him to tell what is the greatest marvel in the world. His reply is that, “Each day death strikes. And we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest marvel.” And, yes, is it not possible that the greatest marvel of all is that we find ourselves in a universe in which everything around us, from the Earth, to the stars, the galaxies, and indeed the whole of what we can see, lives and is bounded by time, while at the same time revealing, through an infinte variety of relations that we are only just beginning to untangle, an order and a harmony that, while perhaps still not immortal, is far older and far richer than anything we hae so far let ourselves imagine.

In the epilog:

Perhaps the reason why science works, in the absence of a fixed method or a fixed set of rules, is that it is based on an ethic which recognizes that while any individual is obligated to champion what they honestly believe, no individual is the arbitrator of te correctness, or even the interest or usefulness of their own ideas. Experience teaches us that no matter how sure of ourselves we may feel, and how clever we may think we are being at certain instants, nature is alwayssmarter, and anyone’s individual achievement may only survive to the extent to which it is superseded by the achievement of others.

Perhaps, then, this is the most important reason that science does matter to society, because it is in this way a part of the centuries old experiment to discover what democracy is. In its ideal form a science is a network of consensus shared among individuals without propaganda or coercion, as a democratic society is envisioned to be a society of free individuals living with each other without coercion or violence.

Also in the epilog, he mentions again the influence of Liebniz’s views against Newton’s ideas of the absolute, and contrasts the heavy worldview connected with the idea of a universe viewed from outside by the Great Clockmaker, and the fear of the clock running down into a heat-death, with the dynamic and ever-renewing self-organizing universe he has described throughout the book. He again invokes Nietzche’s darkness and heaviness as the ultimate expression of the inevitable worldview that follows from Newton’s universe.

Against this I would like to set the lightness of the new search for knowledge, which is based in the understanding that the world is a network of relations, that what was once thought to be absolute is always subject to  evolutionand renegotiation, that the complete truth about the world is not graspable as any single point of view, but only resides in the totality of several or many distinct views. We understand now that there is no meaning to being at rest, and hence no sense for stasis; this new understanding of knowledge might be said to be imbued with the freedom of the principle of inertia and grounded not in space but only in relations. And these develop not inabsolute time but only in succession, in progression. Finally, this new view of the universe we aspire to will include a cosmology in which life has a proper andmeaningful place in the world. That is, in the end the image I want to leave is that life is light, both because what we are is matter energized by  the passaage of photons through the biosphere and because what is essential in life is without weight, but only pattern, structure,information. And because the logic of life is continual change, continual motion, contiual evolution.

Finally, the new view of the universe islight, in all its senses, because what Darwin has given us, and what we may aspire to generalize to the cosmos as a whole, is a way of thinking about the world which is scientific and mechanistic, but in which the occurrence of novelty – indeed the perpetual birth of novelty – can be understood.

It’s a very interesting book, though perhaps not for everyone. The ideas deserve to be more widely understood.


2007-01-26: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

A Search for Who We Are (1992)

by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Ann Druyan (1949-)

I might have read this book before I started writing these reports; much of the content is familiar to me.

For someone just becoming curious, but with a bit of science background, it is a good introduction to the evolutionary background for human nature.

They invoke Niels Bohr’s aphorism: “Clarity through breadth.” However, once they get past cosmology, their breadth is primarily in the biological realm. They also have this good cautionary advice: “We urge the reader to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of Nature, but is never fully there.”

For those of a mystical bent, they provide: “Nanrei Kobori, late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto, said to us ‘God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.’”

Regarding the reaction to Darwin they provide two quotes:

I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, letter of 1775

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian [geological] system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. – Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, Chapter XV

Another quote:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land,; after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, On Impermanence

Regarding the animal sources of much of human nature:

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

In the notes to chapter ten, there is a fascinating story of using close observation of nature to get close to birds for watching. Anyone who reads the book should not miss it.


2006-10-25: In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory

The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006)

by Eric R. Kandel (1929-)

I might have learned of this book from a review in Science magazine. It was described as an interesting mix of remembrance of a career and the personal background to the career. It is this, and is very interesting. Kandel begins with Kristallnacht in Vienna, when his family began to suffer from the Nazis in Austria. A tragedy at the time, the events created the circumstances that later enabled his career. Decades later, after winning the Nobel prize, Kandel returned to Austria and forced at least some there to re-examine the Austrian experience of anti-semitism.

Ch 17, Long-term Memory, p 240:

In reflecting on his genetic studies of bacteria, François Jacob distinguished between two categories of scientific investigation: day science and night science. Day science is rational, logical, and pragmatic, carried forward by precisely designed experiments. “Day science employs reasoning that meshes like gears, and achieves results with the force of certainty,” Jacob wrote. Night science, on the other hand, “is a sort of workshop of the possible, where are elaborated what will become the building materials of science. Where hypotheses take the form of presentiments, of hazy sensations.”

Ch 23, Attention Must Be Paid!, p 311:

Selective attention [a key to the difference between explicit and implicit spatial memory] is widely recognized as a powerful factor in perception, action, and memory – in the unity of conscious experience. At any given moment, animals are inundated with a vast number of sensory stimuli, yet they pay attention to only one or a very small number of them, ignoring or suppressing the rest. The brain’s capacity for processing sensory information is more limited than its receptors’ capacity for measuring the environment. Attention therefore acts as a filter, selecting some objects for further processing. It is in large part because of selective attention that internal representations do not replicate every detail of the external world and sensory stimuli alone do not predict every motor action. In our moment-to-moment experience, we focus on specific sensory information and exclude the rest (more or less). If you raise your eyes from this book to look at a person entering the room, you are no longer paying attention to the words on the page. At the same time, you are not attending to the décor of the room or the other people in the room. If asked to report your experience later, you are more likely to remember that a person entered the room than that there was a small scratch on the wall.

Ch 27, Biology and the Renaissance of Psychoanalytic Thought. P 374:

Kandel describes how psychoanalysis languished as it drifted away from any biological basis, to be reinvigorated later.

… John Bowlby … formulated the idea that the defenseless infant maintains a closeness to its caretaker by means of a system of emotive and behavioral response patterns that he called the “attachment system.” Bowlby conceived of the attachment system as an inborn instinctual or motivational system, much like hunger or thirst, that organizes the memory processes of the infant and directs it to seek proximity to and communication with its mother. From an evolutionary point of view, the attachment system clearly enhances the infant’s chances of survival by allowing its immature brain to use the parent’s mature functions to organize its life processes. The infant’s attachment mechanism is mirrored in the parent’s emotionally sensitive responses to the infant’s signals. Parental responses serve both to amplify and reinforce an infant’s positive emotional states and to attenuate the infant’s negative emotional states. These repeated experiences become encoded in procedural memory as expectations that help the infant feel secure.

Ch 30, Learning from Memory: Prospects, p 425:

Speaking of his later career and the prospects for future research:

I like the idea of applying molecular biology to link my area, the molecular biology of mind, to [his wife] Denise’s area, sociology, and thus to develop a realistic molecular sociobiology. Several researchers have made a fine start here. Cori Bargmann … has studied two variants of C. elegans that differ in their feeding patterns. One variant is solitary and seeks its food alone. He other is social and forages in groups. The only difference between the two is one amino acid in an otherwise shared receptor protein. …

Giacomo Rizzolatti … has discovered that when a monkey carries out a specific action with its hand, such as putting a peanut in its mouth, certain neurons in the premotor cortex become active. Remarkably, the same neurons become active when a monkey watches another monkey (or even a person) put food in its mouth. Rizzolatti calls these “mirror neurons” and suggests that they provide the first insight into imitation, identification, empathy, and possibly the ability to mime vocalization – the mental processes intrinsic to human interaction. …

In looking at just these three research strands, one can see a whole new area of biology opening up, one that can give us a sense of what makes us social, communicating beings. An ambitious undertaking of this sort might not only discern the factors that enable members of a cohesive group to recognize one another but also teach us something about the factors that give rise to tribalism, which is so often associated with fear, hatred, and intolerance of outsiders.

There is a lot that is interesting in this book, and it is quite well written. It only lagged when Kandel describes his involvement with biotech companies and their impact on researchers and research. Though he recognizes the advantage for developing actual therapies from discoveries, it’s clearly not very interesting to him.


2005-02-24: The Elegant Universe

The Elegant Universe

Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999)

by Brian Greene (1963-)

I was inspired to read this after reading The First Three Minutes. Had the subject been current when I was in school, I would have tried to participate in it.

The book itself was given to me by Carl, who thought I would like it. Greene’s presentation is for nontechnical spectators, companion to a Nova series that I didn’t see.

The subject is superficially mere conjecture, with no grounding in experiment. However, this is not really a weakness. General Relativity was in a similar position while Einstein developed it. The main difference is that Einstein worked with little help (though of course he drew on the work of others). Quantum geometry (to use the name I like best of those Greene uses) is a collaboration of many, and has been in development for at least thirty years.

The attraction of the theory (at least as Greene presents the theory) is primarily aesthetic. A theory is being developed that might produce physics from mathematical axioms. The axioms are primarily expressions of geometry and the core of quantum theory. It is thrilling to think that the theory might produce predictions (postdictions) of the so-called fundamental facts of the current standard model and gravitation theories.

I recently heard Greene interviewed by Terry Gross, and I expect to also read his book The Fabric of the Cosmos.


2005-01-10: The First Three Minutes

The First Three Minutes

A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (updated 1977)

by Steven Weinberg (1933-)

I’ve been aware of this book for decades, but wasn’t moved to read it until I recently started reading a book about string theory, ostensibly for a popular audience. This book is also aimed at a popular audience, having originated in popular lectures. Unfortunately, I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

Although it is well known that even a single equation will cut the sales of a book, Weinberg claims not to require mathematics, yet constantly expresses mathematical formulas in English sentences and large numbers in words; these take up more room and communicate less clearly than their mathematical equivalent, and are really cheating the reader. Without at least a little math, the text amounts to hand-waving (in some areas, arm-waving). I doubt that the subject can be understood by a mathematically illiterate reader; I consider the attempt to avoid mathematics at all cost to be a wasted effort. Weinberg does provide an appendix full of math, but I didn’t read it. I also doubt many other readers have read it.

I think the subject could be presented in a better way, with the approach used in Gravitation (which of course is not a popular book). Multiple “tracks” through the material could be provided. One track could have lots of pictures and simple notions of the basic concepts (particles, energy, temperature, time), but little quantitative information. Another track could refine the concepts with measurements and other quantitative aspects, including arithmetic and algebra to relate derived quantities. A third track could provide enough math to demonstrate that the first two tracks were not just hand-waving, without trying to derive the necessary equations, simply explaining them.

On a related note, the book has too many references to the work that it summarizes. It’s not as if the target reader could look up any of it, or has any idea who the people named might be.

Aside from those concerns, I thought the subject was well chosen, and I haven’t seen any better treatment. I liked the chapter about the history of the detection of the 3K background radiation; it gives a glimpse into the human side of scientific fashions. Certainly a lot of readers left the book on their desks or coffee tables, without gaining any understanding of its subject, but some at least might have gained a little (or improved their) understanding beyond the various mythologies floating around in our culture.