Category Archives: science

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m cur­rently watch­ing Carl Sagan’s excel­lent Cos­mos: A Per­son­al Voy­age. I feel com­pelled to post the fol­low­ing quote from epis­ode four, Heav­en and Hell, as it stood out for its eleg­ant argu­ment for the strength of sci­entif­ic ideas and for not reject­ing uncom­fort­able (if incor­rect) ideas:

There are many hypo­theses in sci­ence which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aper­ture to find­ing out what’s right. Sci­ence is a self-cor­rect­ing pro­cess. To be accep­ted, new ideas must sur­vive the most rig­or­ous stand­ards of evid­ence and scru­tiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross con­tra­dic­tion to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some sci­ent­ists attemp­ted to sup­press Velikovsky’s ideas.

The sup­pres­sion of uncom­fort­able ideas may be com­mon in reli­gion or in polit­ics, but it is not the path to know­ledge. And there is no place for it in the endeav­our of sci­ence.

We do not know before­hand where fun­da­ment­al insights will arise from about our mys­ter­i­ous and lovely sol­ar sys­tem. And the his­tory of our study of the sol­ar sys­tem shows clearly that accep­ted and con­ven­tion­al ideas are often wrong and that fun­da­ment­al insights can arise from the most unex­pec­ted sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astro­nom­ic­al ideas or insights about our sol­ar sys­tem… well, then you’re delud­ing your­self.

I can­’t wait for the updated Cos­mos presen­ted by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

Size and Complexity: Why Animals Are the Way They Are

From bone strength and oxy­gen absorp­tion in lar­ger anim­als, to the per­ils of sur­face ten­sion and poor eye design in smal­ler ones: just some ideas to con­sider when study­ing com­par­at­ive ana­tomy and why anim­als are the way they are.

A per­fect take on the top­ic is J. B. S. Haldane’s 1928 On Being the Right Size. In this absorb­ing short essay, Haldane looks at why rhi­nos have short, thick legs; why the smal­lest mam­mal in Spitzber­gen is the fox; and, primar­ily, how the size of an anim­al determ­ines almost everything about its ana­tomy.

There is a force which is as for­mid­able to an insect as grav­it­a­tion to a mam­mal. This is sur­face ten­sion. A man com­ing out of a bath car­ries with him a film of water of about one-fiftieth of an inch in thick­ness. This weighs roughly a pound. A wet mouse has to carry about its own weight of water. A wet fly has to lift many times its own weight and, as every­one knows, a fly once wet­ted by water or any oth­er liquid is in a very ser­i­ous pos­i­tion indeed. An insect going for a drink is in as great danger as a man lean­ing out over a pre­cip­ice in search of food. If it once falls into the grip of the sur­face ten­sion of the water—that is to say, gets wet—it is likely to remain so until it drowns. […]

The high­er anim­als are not lar­ger than the lower because they are more com­plic­ated. They are more com­plic­ated because they are lar­ger. Just the same is true of plants.

As is typ­ic­al of Haldane, he fin­ishes with some­thing a bit more polit­ic­al than ana­tom­ic­al, stat­ing that “just as there is a best size for every anim­al, so the same is true for every human insti­tu­tion”. Some­thing to con­sider.

via The Browser

Retreating to Study Technology’s Cognitive Impact

Five neur­os­cient­ists trav­elled into deep­est Glen Canyon, Utah, to con­tem­plate how tech­no­logy has changes their beha­viour. Some were scep­tics and some were believ­ers, and by tak­ing this forced break from their com­puters and gad­gets (there was no mobile phone recep­tion or power) they were determ­ined to find out wheth­er or not mod­ern tech­no­logy inhib­its their “deep thought” and can cause them anxi­ety.

This bit of self-exper­i­ment­a­tion and cog­nit­ive reflec­tion is a bit too light on the con­clu­sions for my lik­ing, but this art­icle, from The New York Times’ Unplugged series that exam­ines “how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave”, does have this that’s worth think­ing about:

[By day three] the group has become more reflect­ive, quieter, more focused on the sur­round­ings. […]
The oth­ers are more relaxed too. Mr. Braver decides against cof­fee, bypassing his usu­al ritu­al. The next day, he neg­lects to put on his watch, though he cau­tions against read­ing too much into it. […]

Mr. Stray­er, the believ­er, says the trav­el­ers are exper­i­en­cing a stage of relax­a­tion he calls “third-day syn­drome.” Its symp­toms may be unsur­pris­ing. But even the more skep­tic­al of the sci­ent­ists say some­thing is hap­pen­ing to their brains that rein­forces their sci­entif­ic dis­cus­sions — some­thing that could be import­ant to help­ing people cope in a world of con­stant elec­tron­ic noise.

“If we can find out that people are walk­ing around fatigued and not real­iz­ing their cog­nit­ive poten­tial,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full poten­tial?”

“Third-day syn­drome”. I like that, and it rings true. Week­ends away to nearby cit­ies don’t do it for me in terms of dis­en­ga­ging and allow­ing free thought; I need at least four days.

One more com­ment that was a bit too close for com­fort:

Tech­no­logy has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get inform­a­tion and respond to it? The believ­ers in the group say the drum­beat of incom­ing data has cre­ated a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s abil­ity to focus.

Successful Science Article Pitches

Art­icle and book pitches – both suc­cess­ful and unsuc­cess­ful – can give you a small insight into an edit­or­’s selec­tion pro­cess and the sales-side of a writer­’s mind, as well as help you learn to write more effect­ively. As such I’ve star­ted to col­lect sites fea­tur­ing pro­pos­als and pitches.

A recent addi­tion to this list is the pitch data­base from The Open Note­book; a col­lec­tion of writer-sub­mit­ted pitches for sci­ence art­icles that have been accep­ted for pub­lish­ing in many of my favour­ite places, such as Ars Tech­nica, Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, This Amer­ic­an Life and Wired.

Of par­tic­u­lar note is a pitch from Dav­id Dobbs, writer of the Neur­on Cul­ture blog. Pitch­ing Atlantic edit­or Don Peck, Dobbs wrote an extens­ive pitch for The Orch­id Chil­dren that led to the pub­lic­a­tion of a fant­ast­ic article, The Sci­ence of Suc­cess. Those who fol­low Dobbs’ blog will know that this in turn led to a book deal for The Orch­id and the Dan­deli­on, Dobbs’ forth­com­ing book.

The History (and Future) of the Universe

Start­ing at 10-25 seconds after the start of the uni­verse (infla­tion) and end­ing 1015 years later (with the ulti­mate fate of the uni­verse), the timeline of the uni­verse is an incom­pre­hens­ibly long and fas­cin­at­ing one. To help under­stand the forces that led to life as we know it and to get an idea of what’s going to hap­pen in the (dis­tant) future, the­or­et­ic­al astro­phys­i­cist Eth­an Siegel has broken down the details in a won­der­fully access­ible and enlight­en­ing com­plete his­tory of the uni­verse (with pic­tures!).

Those last couple of steps on the timeline are par­tic­u­larly hum­bling:

100 bil­lion years: the Uni­verse has expan­ded so much that our loc­al group, hav­ing merged into a giant ellipt­ic­al galaxy, is the only one left in the vis­ible Uni­verse!

We’ve got a long time left of stars going through the great cos­mic life-cycle, burn­ing their fuel, explod­ing, trig­ger­ing star form­a­tion, and burn­ing their new fuel. But this is lim­ited; there’s only a finite amount of hydro­gen and oth­er ele­ments to burn via nuc­le­ar fusion. The skies will even­tu­ally go com­pletely dark, as the last of the dim, red dwarf stars (the longest-lived ones) exhaust their fuel.

1015 years: the last bit of hydro­gen is burned up, and our entire Uni­verse goes dark, being pop­u­lated only by black holes, neut­ron stars, and degen­er­ate dwarf stars, which even­tu­ally them­selves cool, fade, and turn black.

And that’s the entire Uni­verse, from the very begin­ning of what we can sens­ibly say about it to the far dis­tant future!

via @Foomandoonian