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