Galileo’s Experiments on Accelerated Motion

A short account of Galileo’s description of his own experiment on accelerated motion — a short account of it, the apparatus he used and the results he got.

The first argument that Salviati proves is that in accelerated motion the change in velocity is in proportion to the time (𝑣 ∝ 𝑡) since the motion began, and not in proportion to the distance covered (𝑣 ∝ 𝑠) as is believed by Sargedo.

“But for one and the same body to fall eight feet and four feet in the same time is possible only in the case of instantaneous (discontinuous) motion; but observation shows us that the motion of a falling body occupies time, and less of it in covering a distance of four feet than of eight feet; therefore it is not true that its velocity increases in proportion to the space. (Salviati)

Also, he proves that the increase in proportion is not of simple doubling but larger. They agree upon a definition of uniformly accelerated motion,

“A motion is said to be equally or uniformly accelerated when, starting from rest, its momentum receives equal increments in equal times. (Sargedo)

To this definition Salviati adds an assumption about inclined planes, this assumption is that for a given body, the increase in speed while moving down the planes of difference inclinations is equal to the height of the plane. This also includes the case if the body is dropped vertically down, it will still gain the same speed at end of the fall as it would gain from rolling on the incline This assumption makes the final speed independent on the profile of the incline. For example, in the figure below, the body falling along𝐶 → 𝐵, 𝐶 → 𝐷 and 𝐶 → 𝐴 will attain the same final speed.

This result is also proved via a thought experiment (though it might be feasible to do this experiment) for a pendulum. The pendulum rises to the height it was released from and not more.

After stating this theorem, Galileo then suggests the experimental verification of the theorem. of The actual apparatus that Galileo uses is an wooden inclined slope of following dimensions: length 12 cubits (≈ 5.5 m, 1 cubit ≈ 45.7 cm), width half-cubit and three-finger breadths thick . In this plank of wood, he creates a very smooth groove which is about a finger thick. (What was the thickness of Galileo’s fingers?) The incline of this plank are changed by lifting one end. A bronze ball is rolled in this groove and time taken for descent is noted.

“We repeated this experiment more than once in order to measure the time with an accuracy such that the deviation between two observations never exceeded one- tenth of a pulse-beat.

Then Galileo performed variations in the experiment by letting the ball go different lengths (not full) of the incline and “found that the spaces traversed were to each other as the squares of the times, and this was true for all inclinations of the plane”. Each variation was repeated hundreds of times so as to rule out any errors. Also, the fact that for different inclines the times of descent were in noted and were in agreement with the predictions.

Since there were no second resolution clocks to measure time, Galileo devised a method to measure time using water. This was not new, water clocks were used earlier also.

The basic idea was to the measure the amount of water that was collected from the start of the motion to its end. The water thus collected was weighed on a good balance.This weight of water was used as a measure of the time. A sort of calibration without actually measuring the quantity itself: “the differences and ratios of these weights gave us the differences and ratios of the times”

Galileo used a long incline, so that he could measure the time of descent with device he had. If a shorted incline was used, it would have been difficult to measure the shorter interval of time with the resolution he had. Measuring the free fall directly was next to impossible with the technology he had. Thus the extrapolation to the free fall was made continuing the pattern that was observed for the “diluted” gravity.

“You present these recondite matters with too much evidence and ease; this great facility makes them less appreciated than they would be had they been presented in a more abstruse manner. For, in my opinion, people esteem more lightly that knowledge which they acquire with so little labor than that acquired through long and obscure discussion. (Sargedo)

 

Reference

Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences

Bertrand Russel’s proof of naïve realism being false

What is naïve realism you may ask? To put simply naïve realism is a belief that whatever you see with your senses is the reality. There is nothing more to reality than what your sense perceptions bring to you. It is a direct unmediated access to reality. There is no “interpretation” involved.

In philosophy of perception and philosophy of mind, naïve realism (also known as direct realism, perceptual realism, or common sense realism) is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. When referred to as direct realism, naïve realism is often contrasted with indirect realism.

Naïve Realism

To put this in other words, naïve realism fails to distinguish between the phenomenal and the physical object. That is to say, all there is to the world is how we perceive it, nothing more.

Bertrand Russel gave a one line proof of why naïve realism is false. And this is the topic of this post. Also, the proof has some implications for science education, hence the interest.

Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.

As quoted in Mary Henle – On the Distinction Between the Phenomenal and the Physical Object, John M. Nicholas (ed.), Images, Perception, and Knowledge, 187-193. (1977)

Henle in her rather short essay (quoted above) on this makes various philosophically oriented arguments to show that it is an easier position to defend when we make a distinction between the two.

But considering the “proof” of Russel, I would like to bring in evidence from science education which makes it even more compelling. There is a very rich body of literature on the theme of misconceptions or alternative conceptions among students and even teachers. Many of these arise simply because of a direct interpretation of events and objects around us.

Consider a simple example of Newton’s first law of motion.

In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

Now for the naïve realists this will never be possible, as they will never see an object going by itself without application of any force. In real world, friction will bring to halt bodies which are moving. Similar other examples from the misconceptions also do fit in this pattern. This is perhaps so because most of the science is counter-intuitive in nature. With our simple perception we can only do a limited science (perhaps create empirical laws). So one can perhaps say that learners with alternative conceptions hold naïve realist world-view (to some degree) and the role of science education is to change this.

Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157978.Ages_in_Chaos

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Book Review: Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir D. Aczel

The book traces Leon Foucault’s ingenious approach to solving the problem of providing a terrestrial proof of rotation of the Earth. The pendulum he devised oscillates in a constant plane, and if properly engineered (as he did) can actually show the rotation of the Earth. The demonstration is one the most visually impressive scientific experiments. Also, Foucault gave prediction, an equation which would tell us how the pendulum will behave at different parts of the Earth. The pure mathematicians and physicists alike were taken aback at this simple yet powerful demonstration of the proof which eluded some of the most brilliant minds, which includes likes of Galileo and Newton. Rushed mathematical proofs were generated, some of the mathematicians earlier had claimed that no such movement was possible. That being said, Foucault was seen as an outsider by the elite French Academy due to his lack of training and degree. Yet he was good in designign things and making connections to science. This was presented to the public in 1851, and the very next year in 1852 he created another proof for rotation of the Earth. This was done by him inventing the gyroscope.. Gyroscope now plays immense role in navigation and other technologies. Yet he was denied membership to the Academy, only due to interest of the Emperor Napolean III in his work in 1864. The pendulum is his most famous work, but other works are also of fundamental significance.

  • He was first person to do photomicrography using Daguerreotype
  • Accurate measurment of speed of light using rotating mirrors –
  • Devised carbon arc electric lamp for lighting of micrcoscope
  • One of the first to Daguerreotype the Sun
  • Designed the tracking systems used in telescopes
  • also designed many motors, regulators to control electrical devices

There are a couple of places in the book where Aczel seems to be confused, at one point he states parallax as a proof for rotation of Earth around its axis, whearas it is more of a proof of Earths motion around the Sun. At another place he states that steel was invented in 1800s which perhaps he means to say that it was introduced in the west at the time. Apart from this the parallels between the rise of Napoleon III, a Nephew of Napolean, to form the second Empire in France and Foucault’s own struggle for recognition of his work and worth is brought out nicely.

Quatermass and The Pit

One of my favourite genres of literature is science fiction. Two of the classic science fiction authors at the start of the previous century were H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne. The golden era of science fiction began in late 1930s and 1940s and flourished in the post-war era, which saw the big three (Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) along with many others bring out their finest.  Some of the other remarkable authors from that era include (my personal preference, and by no means a representative list) Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut. Though novels were there, the mass format was the pulp science fiction magazines which published short or serialised stories from various authors. Many of the famous novels were first published as short stories in these pulp magazines. A selection of them with fantastic full-colour covers and some with black and white illustrations on the inside. Some of the prominent titles that come up are Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Worlds of IF, Galaxy Science fiction among others.

The post-war era was an era where people believed that we will have permanent bases on the Moon by end of the 20th century and space travel would be commonplace. But we now know, it will be perhaps a few decades if not centuries for space travel to become common. The optimism in the 50s and 60s perhaps was fuelled by the cold war space race, which saw both the West and Soviets invest huge sums to research and development in developing space technologies. This optimism gradually waned as the Soviet empire fell.

With television becoming the newest technology to reach out to the audience, it is not surprising that many of the programmes were tuned to science fiction. I happened to stumble upon one such programmes while scanning the treasures at The Internet Archive. This was a British production titled Quatermass and The Pit created by Nigel Kneale. This is third in a series of Quatermass episodes.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The six-part television series from 1958 (each episode is 30-35 minutes) is set in post-war London at Hobbs lane where during an excavation for a building some fossil skulls are discovered.  Dr. Matthew Roney, a paleontologist from a nearby museum begins to investigate the discovery. The fossil skulls and subsequent bones are found to be a new previously unknown dwarf hominid species, perhaps the missing link and are dated to roughly 5 MYA. Roney’s head assistant Barbara Judd, creates a reconstruction of the species which is present to the press.

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Soon after, when they continue digging a strange smooth object is found in the pit. The object resembles an unexploded World War II-era bomb and police and subsequently, the military is contacted for its safe disposal.

 

The bomb disposal squad works slowly and does not care about the archaeological aspects of the pit. This makes Roney impatient, who then contacts his experimental physicist friend Prof. Bernard Quatermass to hasten the disposal of the bomb disposal squad.

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Quartermass is involved in rocket research, which he intends to use for peaceful purposes. And this creates a rift between him and the military personnel he is working with. This has some moral and ethical implications for the purpose of scientific research and whether the scientists are responsible for their research being used for military purposes. The military intends to develop bases on the Moon and Mars in order to achieve supremacy in space which is against the principles of Quatermass.

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Quatermass and Colonel Breen visit the site in order to look at the discovery. When the supposed bomb is excavated deeper more fossils are found and the true shape of the artefact is revealed. And it turns out that the artefact cannot be cut by gas cutter, even after raising the temperature to order of 3000 degrees.

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Further digging, provides a disk and an opening to the artefact. Soon, the shape of the complete artefact is revealed. Rest of the hollow space is emptied out, yet the hull of the artefact remains close shut. There is a pentacle on the smooth inner surface of the hull.

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From the outside, the artefact looks like a rocket, which leads Breen to speculate that it is indeed a German rocket which fell here during the war. Also, traces of artificial radioactivity are found in the soil, which indicates that the artefact might be propelled by a nuclear engine. But Quatermass taking into account the age of the fossils speculates that the artefact itself might be of ancient origin. One of the bomb-disposal unit member has a strange hallucinating experience inside the artefact. He sees a dwarf-like figure pass through the walls.

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To open the hull, they try to drill it with a borazon boron nitride drill which makes no impact. But the action of the drills sets out weird vibrations which make everyone frightened and uneasy.

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Everyone is in a state of panic after this. Quatermass, Roney, and Judd run a parallel investigation after hearing out an old local couple about the neigbouring house being haunted. They dig older records and find episodes of haunting dating back till 1300s through to the present. For Quatermass and Roney this is too much of a coincidence and they begin to speculate about the ancient origins of the artefact.

Just after the drilling, a hole automatically appears in the pentacled hull. Roney looks inside and sees what seems like an eye. They force open the hull and find three insects inside the hull who are decaying.

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Roney immediately tries to stop the decay and preserves the specimens and takes them to the museum. They are unlike any insects known and are tripods. Quatermass and Roney speculate the extra-terrestrial origin of these insects, most probably from Mars.

When the drill operator is taking out his equipment, he triggers more poltergeist activity from the artefact and sets a panic across the street. He finally lands in a church in a state of delirium. He describes to Roney and Quatermass hallucinating visions of the insects found in the artefact killing each other.

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Like good scientists, they further investigate the visions using a Roney’s optic-encephalogram, a device that records impressions from the optical centers of the brain. It turns out Judd is the most sensitive of the lot to these visions and they record them. The visions show large-scale culling of the mutations of insects. Seeing these recordings as a “proof” of their theory of extra-terrestrial origins of the artefact. This evidence along with his theory is presented to the military brass. The theory is ridiculed as a fantasy, and a common-sense approach that artefact and the insects being propaganda from Nazi Germany is preferred. They want to dispel the myth that the artefact is that old or it is indeed extra-terrestrial.

The theory as developed by Quatermass is as follows taking into account the evidence he has:

The Martian race of insects is selected to weed out any mutants. So there is a tendency to have large scale purges, which are seen in the hallucinations of people. The Martians came here 5 MYA, and tried to genetically re-programme our ancestors in their own image. During this reprogramming, the human ancestors were given telepathytelekinesis and other psychic powers. And they were set back to Earth. The artefact found was one such space-ship which crashed while bringing modified hominids back to the Earth. Now in the vicinity of the space-ship, some of these long-forgotten powers are awakened. The spaceship itself induces the visions and poltergeist phenomena seen when the ground near the ship was disturbed. Quatermass fears that a large scale activation of such powers might lead to mass killings of humans as seen in the hallucinations.

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A media event is organised in order to address this once and for all. Quatermass pleads that this event must be stopped but in vain. Just as the live event is about to start, the power cables in the vicinity of the artefact, activates it fully. This sets chaos about everywhere and people are trying to kill each other. Somehow Quatermass comes out and is saved by Roney. Entire London is seen to be under mass panic and people killing each other and destroying things.

I will stop here and won’t ruin the climax for you.

You can watch the entire series at The Internet Archive

Episode One “The Halfmen” 

Episode Two “The Ghosts”

Episode Three “Imps and Demons”

Episode Four “The Enchanted”

Episode Five “The Wild Hunt”

Episode Six “‘Hob'”

Some reflections (as seen by a reader from 21st century):

The easy flow of information and relatively free access to the press seem to be unrealistic. For example, one of the reporters gets in easily and takes photos at will of the pit, the artefact and insects. In fact, even after the mysterious nature of the artefact is made known, no attempt at hiding it from the public is done. This is perhaps due to the fact that the military brass firmly believes it to be WW II era find, yet even in this case the free access to press is questionable.

The other aspect is the depth of the characters, which are frankly speaking one dimensional. But perhaps this is keeping in mind the general state of science fiction from that era. Most of the stories, films were like this which did not involve multiple levels of the plot. For example, another fantastic TV series from the era The Twilight Zone (1959) has similar storylines. The acting also looks over the top at times (not at all subtle at any point really), but perhaps this is again a reflection of that era and influence of theatre on films.

Quatermass, like a good scientist, considers evidence from the pit itself (the artefact with seemingly advanced technology, the alien bodies, the 5 MYA fossils), and from people (the visions, and the hallucinations, the elder couple who tell about haunting in the area) and historical records. The evidence of the artefact being old, is right there from the beginning, yet it takes Quatermass and others a long time to consider extraterrestrial origin. Perhaps, we, as readers in the current age, are more agreeable to such a possibility, hence we may find it a bit naive. But then we are trying to judge a production from another era with standards of another.

Some of the themes could be considered on a deeper level. For example, how does evidence from evolutionary aspects corresponds to this explaining? We can perhaps develop another story which takes this forward…

 

Genetics and human nature

Usually, in the discussion regarding human nature, there is a group of academics who would like to put all the differences amongst humans to non-genetic components. That is to say, the cultural heritage plays a much more important or the only important role in the transfer of characteristics. In the case of education, this is one of the most contested topics. The nature-nurture debate as it is known goes to the heart of many theories of human behaviour, learning and cognition. The behaviourist school was very strong until the mid 20th century. This school strongly believed that the entirety of human learning is dependent only on the environment with the genes or (traits inherited from the parents) playing little or no role. This view was seriously challenged on multiple fronts with attacks from at least six fields of academic inquiry: linguists, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and neuroscience. The advances in these fields and the results of the studies strongly countered the core aspects of behaviourism. Though the main thrust of the behaviourist ideas seems to be lost, but the spirit still persists.  This is in the form of academics who still deny any role for genes, or even shun at the possibility of genes having any effect on human behaviour. They say it is all the “environment” or nurture as they name it. Any attempt to study the genetic effects are immediately classified as fascist, Nazi or equated to social Darwinism and eugenics. But over several decades now, studies which look at these aspects have given us a mounting mountain of evidence to lay the idea to rest. The genes do play a definitive role and what we are learning is that the home environment may not be playing any role at all or a very little role in determining how we turn out. Estimates range from 0 to 10%. The genes, on the other hand, have been found to have about 50% estimate, the rest 40% being attributed to a “unique”  environment that the individual experiences.   Though typically, some of the individuals in academia argue strongly against the use of genetics or even mention of the word associated with education or any other parameters related to education. But this has to do more with their ideological positions, which they do not want to change, than actual science. This is Kuhnian drama of a changing science at work. The old scientists do not want to give up on their pet theories even in the case of evidence against them. This is not a unique case, the history of science is full of such episodes.

Arthur Jensen, was one of the pioneers of studying the effect of genetic heritability in learning. And he lived through the behaviourist and the strong nurture phases of it. This quote of his summarises his stand very well.

Racism and social elitism fundamentally arise from identification of individuals with their genetic ancestry; they ignore individuality in favor of group characteristics; they emphasize pride in group characteristics, not individual accomplishment; they are more concerned with who belongs to what, and with head-counting and percentages and quotas than with respecting the characteristics of individuals in their own right. This kind of thinking is contradicted by genetics; it is anti-Mendelian. And even if you profess to abhor racism and social elitism and are joined in battle against them, you can only remain in a miserable quandary if at the same time you continue to think, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of non-genetic or antigenetic theories of human differences. Wrong theories exact their own penalties from those who believe them. Unfortunately, among many of my critics and among many students I repeatedly encounter lines of argument which reveal disturbing thought-blocks to distinguishing individuals from statistical characteristics (usually the mean) of the groups with which they are historically or socially identified.

–  Arthur Jensen, Educability and Group Differences 1973

As the highlighted sentence in the quote remarks, the theories which are wrong or are proven to be wrong do certainly exact penalties from their believers. One case from history of science being the rise and rise of Lysenkoism in the erstwhile USSR. The current bunch of academics who strongly deny any involvement of genes in the theories of human learning are no different.

Asimov on science literacy

Science literacy does not have a unique definition. Depending on what your ideas about science are, the meaning of science literacy will change. But being scientifically literate, is usually taken as a sign of being informed, being rational in decisions. Here is what the great science and science-fiction writer Issac Asimov had to say about its importance.

A public that does not understand how science works can, all too easily, fall prey to those ignoramuses … who make fun of what they do not understand, or
to the sloganeers who proclaim scientists to be the mercenary warriors of today, and the tools of the military. The difference … between … understanding and not understanding . . . is also the difference between respect and admiration on the one side, and hate and fear on the other.

– Isaac Asimov

 

Why philosophy is so important in science education

This is a nice article whicH I have reposted from AEON…

Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before.
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.

At this point, I’m often asked questions such as: ‘What are your qualifications?’ ‘Which school did you attend?’ and ‘Are you a scientist?’

Perhaps they ask these questions because, as a female philosopher of Jamaican extraction, I embody an unfamiliar cluster of identities, and they are curious about me. I’m sure that’s partly right, but I think that there’s more to it, because I’ve observed a similar pattern in a philosophy of science course taught by a more stereotypical professor. As a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, I served as a teaching assistant for a course on human nature and evolution. The professor who taught it made a very different physical impression than I do. He was white, male, bearded and in his 60s – the very image of academic authority. But students were skeptical of his views about science, because, as some said, disapprovingly: ‘He isn’t a scientist.’

I think that these responses have to do with concerns about the value of philosophy compared with that of science. It is no wonder that some of my students are doubtful that philosophers have anything useful to say about science. They are aware that prominent scientists have stated publicly that philosophy is irrelevant to science, if not utterly worthless and anachronistic. They know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is accorded vastly greater importance than anything that the humanities have to offer.

Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.

Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.

One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations. Some of the subjects that are now labelled ‘science’ once fell under different headings. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics. The scope of science has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural contexts where it was practised.

Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.

A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is. To approach it, I invite students to look at something nearby without any presuppositions. I then ask them to tell me what they see. They pause… and then recognise that they can’t interpret their experiences without drawing on prior ideas. Once they notice this, the idea that it can be appropriate to ask questions about objectivity in science ceases to be so strange.

The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.

Why do they think this way? It’s not because this is the way that science is practised but rather, because this is how science is normally taught. There are a daunting number of facts and procedures that students must master if they are to become scientifically literate, and they have only a limited amount of time in which to learn them. Scientists must design their courses to keep up with rapidly expanding empirical knowledge, and they do not have the leisure of devoting hours of class-time to questions that they probably are not trained to address. The unintended consequence is that students often come away from their classes without being aware that philosophical questions are relevant to scientific theory and practice.

But things don’t have to be this way. If the right educational platform is laid, philosophers like me will not have to work against the wind to convince our students that we have something important to say about science. For this we need assistance from our scientist colleagues, whom students see as the only legitimate purveyors of scientific knowledge. I propose an explicit division of labour. Our scientist colleagues should continue to teach the fundamentals of science, but they can help by making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address, and that far from being irrelevant to science, philosophical matters lie at its heart.Aeon counter – do not remove

 

Subrena E Smith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Reductionism in Science

Many scientists look on chemistry and physics as ideal models of what psychology should be like. After all, the atoms in the brain are subject to the same all – inclusive physical laws that govern every other form of matter. Then can we also explain what our brains actually do entirely in terms of those same basic principles? The answer is no, simply because even if we  understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The “laws of thought” depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells,but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, “general” laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, “general” laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular.

– Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind pp. 26

Politics Science Education or Science Education Politics or Science Politics Education

I am rather not sure what should be the exact title of this
post. Apart from the two options above it could have been any other
combination of these three words. Because I would be talking about all
three of them in interdependent manner.

If someone tells you that education is or should be independent of politics they, I would say they are very naive in their view about society. Education in general and formalised education in particular, which is supported and implemented by state is about political ideology that we want our next generation to have. One of the Marxian critique of state formalised education is that it keeps the current hierarchical structures untouched in its approach and thus sustains them. Now when we come to science education we get a bit more involved about ideas.

Science by itself was at one point of time assumed to be value-neutral. This line of though can be seen in the essays that some of us wrote in the schools with titles like “Science: good or bad”. Typically the line of argument in such is that by itself science is neither good or bad, but how we put it to use is what determines whether it is good or bad. Examples to substantiate the arguments typically involve some horrific incidents like the atomic bomb on one hand and life saving drugs on the other hand. But by itself, science is not about good or bad values. It is assumed to be neutral in that sense (there are other notions of value-neutrality of science which we will consider later). Scientific thought and its products are considered above petty issues of society and indiduals, it seemed to be an quest for eternal truth. No one questioned the processes or products of science which were assumed to be the most noble, rational, logical and superior way of doing things. But this pretty picture about scientific enterprise was broken by Thomas Kuhn. What we were looking at so far is the “normative” idea of science. That is we create some ideals about science and work under the assumption that this is how actual science is or ought to be. What Kuhn in his seminal work titled The Structure of Scientific Revolution was to challenge such a normative view, instead he did a historical analysis of how science is actually done ans gave us a “descriptive” picture about science, which was based on historical facts. Keeping up the name of the book, it actually revolutionised the way we look at science.

Now keeping in mind this disctinction between “normative” and “descriptive” views is very important. This is not only true for science but also for all other forms of human endeavours. People often tend to confuse or combine the two or many times are not even aware of the difference.

After Kuhn’s groundbreaking work entire new view about science its processes and products emerged. Various aspects of the scientific enterprise which were initially thought about outside purview of science or not affecting science came in to spotlight. Science was dissected and deconstructed from various points of view. Over the next few decades these ideas emerged into full fledged disciplies on their own. Some very valid criticisms of the scientific enterprise were developed and agreed upon. For example, the idea that there exists “the scientific method” was serisously looked into and was found to be too naive. A modified view was adopted in this regard and most of philosophers of science agreed that this is too restrictive a view. Added to this the post-modernist views about science may seem strange and bizzare at times to the uninitiated. This led to what many call as the “science-wars” between scientific realists and postmodernists. The scientific realists who believe that the world described by science is the real world as it is, independent of what it might be. So in this view it implies that there is objective truth in science and the world it describes is real. This view also implies that there is something like “scientific method” and it role in creating true knowledge about the world is paramount. On the other hand postmodernist critics don’t necessarily agree with this view of the world. For example they question the very idea of objectivity of the scientific world-view. Deriving their own meaning into writings of Kuhn (which he didn’t agree to) they claimed that science itself is a social construct and has nothing to do with the real world. The apparent supremacy of “scientific-method” in creating knowledge or presenting us about the world-views is questioned. The entire scientific enterprise from processes to products was deciphered from dimensions of gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Now, when you are teaching about science to learners there should be an awareness about these issues. Some of the issues are usually overlooked or have a logical positivist nature in them. Many philosophers lament that though considerable change has happened in ideas regarding scientific enterprise especially in philosophy of science, it seems corresponding ideas in science education are not up to date. And this can be seen when you look at the science textbook with a critical focus.

With this background I will go into the reasons that made me write this post and the peculiar multi-title. It seems for post-modernists and some others that learning about politics of science is more important than learning science itself. And they feel this is the neutral view and there is nothing political about it. They look at science as an hierarchical enterprise where gender, class and race play the decisive role, hence everyone should know about it. I am not against sharing the fact with learners of science that there are other world-views, what I am against is to share only a peculiar world view which is shaped completely by one’s ideology and politcal stance rather than by actual contents. Many of the people don’t actually know science, yet they feel that they are fully justified to criticise it. And most of these people would fall on the left side of the political spectrum (at least that is what their self-image is). But the way I see it is that these same people are no different from the right-wingers who burn books without reading them. The pomos may think of themselves as intellectually superior to the tilak-sporting people but they are not. Such is the state of intellectuals that they feel threatened by exclusion of certain articles or inclusion of certain other ones in reading courses. They then use all their might to restore the “balance”. At the same time they also tell us only they have some esoteric knowledge about these issues which people like me cannot have. And no matter what I do I will never be able to do what they can. Perhaps they have super powers which I don’t know about, perhaps in their subjective world view the pigs can fly and this fact can be proven by using other methods than the scientific ones. Last point I want to make in this is inspite of all the criticims of science and its products it doesn’t stop these people from refraining use of these products and technologies! This is hypocrisy, they will curse the phone or the computer if it doesn’t work, what they perhaps don’t realise is that it might be working just that the pomos are not able to see it in their worldview.

Can general laws of physics explain everything?

Many scientists look on chemistry and physics as ideal models of what psychology should be like. After all, the atoms in the brain are subject to the same all – inclusive physical laws that govern every other form of matter. Then can we also explain what our brains actually do entirely in terms of those same basic principles? The answer is no, simply because even if we  understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The “laws of thought” depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells,but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, “general” laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, “general” laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular.

– Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind pp. 26

Knowledge: Technical and Scientific

Utility had been deliberately excluded from Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle had nothing against practical knowledge, which he called techne; he simply did not consider it to be the same kind of thing as scientific knowledge, which he called episteme. From techne we have the word technology, which means to us largely the application of scientific knowledge, while from episteme we have the word epistemology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, scientific or any other. For Aristotle, however, the difference between techne and episteme was not a difference between application and theory, but was one of sources of knowledge and goals of knowledge. The source of technical knowledge was practical experience and its goal was, roughly speaking, knowing what to do next time. The source of scientific knowledge was reason, and its goal was the  understanding of things through their causes.

–  Stillman Drake, Galileo A Very Short Introduction (p. 4)

Does Tulsi has environmental benefits too?

Recently there was a news item in Times of India which had the same heading as that of this particular post. The news claimed

(Around two decades back Dada Dham, a socio-spiritual organization brought together a team of botanists, ayurvedic scholars and environmental enthusiasts to study the environmental benefits of tulsi.)

NAGPUR: Ayurvedic medicinal values of Tulsi are well known. Our ancient scriptures have enumerated the medicinal benefits of tulsi. Its extracts are used widely for curing common ailments like common cold, headache, stomach disorder etc.

But the environmental benefits have been comparatively unknown. Around two decades back Dada Dham, a socio-spiritual organization brought together a team of botanists, ayurvedic scholars and environmental enthusiasts to study the environmental benefits of tulsi.

Now the next claim from an “eminent botanist” that the report does is startling indeed.

“Tulsi gives out oxygen for 20 hours and ozone for four hours a day along with the formation of nascent oxygen which absorbs harmful gases like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide from the environment,” said Shyamkant Padoley, an eminent botanist.
How would the tulsi plant (Ocimum tenuiflorum) do this? Is it anatomically so different that it is capable to do this? How does the plant regulate this 20 and 4 hour cycle?  I would really like to know. How is that no other plants have this cycle? How did they detect presence of ozone, what detectors they used? What mechanisms in presently known cycle of photosynthesis account for this cycle? And if this is part of the standard photosynthesis process, then all plants should have it. This seems fishy, and a most preliminary search did not yield any positive result. All of them talk about production of oxygen and not ozone, as reported by Padoley. And if this is indeed true, it might lead to change in our conception of the photosynthetic cycle.
And if the ozone report is to be believed at all then this is what ozone does to you quote from Wikipedia article on ozone:
Ozone is a powerful oxidant (far more so than dioxygen) and has many industrial and consumer applications related to oxidation. This same high oxidizing potential, however, causes ozone to damage mucus and respiratory tissues in animals, and also tissues in plants, above concentrations of about 100 parts per billion. This makes ozone a potent respiratory hazard and pollutant near ground level.
There is evidence of significant reduction in agricultural yields because of increased ground-level ozone and pollution which interferes with photosynthesis and stunts overall growth of some plant species. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a secondary regulation to reduce crop damage, in addition to the primary regulation designed for the protection of human health.
There is a great deal of evidence to show that ground level ozone can harm lung function and irritate the respiratory system.Exposure to ozone and the pollutants that produce it is linked to premature death, asthma, bronchitis, heart attack, and other cardiopulmonary problems.
Ozone is air pollutant, green house gas.
To summarize this is that ozone is NOT GOOD for us at ground level! It may do us good in upper atmosphere to block UV Rays, but down here on ground it is bad. And if this claim of ozone production by Tulsi is true why is the campaign of “Tulsi lagao pradushan hatoa (Plant tulsi, remove pollution)” which follows in the article is being implemented?

Padoley, member of technical committee, ministry of environment and forest, NewDelhi, and forest tech committee, also read a paper at the International Conference on Occupational Respiratory Diseases at Kyoto in 1997 where cyclo oxygenate, an enzyme only found in tulsi was labelled for the first time. This enzyme regulates the entire mechanism of oxygen evolution. (emphasis added)

This again I am unable to understand. It says this enzyme is “only found in Tulsi”, and it also “regulates entire mechanism of oxygen evolution”. One can agree that a particular enzyme is found in a particular plant, but if this enzyme controls “entire mechanism of oxygen evolution”, how do other plants regulate their mechanisms of oxygen evolution.

Dada Dham initiated a campaign ‘Tulsi Lagao Pradushan Hatao’ in 1987 under the guidance of Narendra Dada, the institution’s head. It was under this campaign that the above mentioned panel of experts was formed. After finding out the environmental benefits of the plant, Dada Dham organized a number of programmes like street plays, nukkad sabhas and lectures to propagate the use of the plant.

Dr Dattatraya Saraf, an ayurvedic doctor and expert said, “The plant enriches the environment with oxygen almost 24X7 and also absorbs other pollutants.” He further added that if the size of the plant can be increased, the environmental benefits can be increased.

This statement that “plant enriches the environment with oxygen almost 24X7” is in contradiction to statement by above Padoley regarding 20 and 4 hour cycles. Which one is to be believed? And mind you this is just appearing a few lines later, this is either very poor editing and reporting, or hogwash to the public.

“That is why we want to urge scientists and concerned authorities to make research on the issue of increasing the height of tulsi plant. If big trees can be converted to bonsai plants then big tulsi trees can be possible too,” said Kishor Verma, PRO of Dada Dham.

This is another statement that I would like to contest. Did they compare the rate of oxygen production vis-a-vis to other plants. That is to say simply did they have any control sample? And does making “tulsi tree” make any sense (can one really do it is another question), will it really increase oxygen making capabilities, is it a linear relationship between these two variables? The water is completely muddy in this !

He also citied the research and work by other organization in support of tulsi’s environmental benefits.

“The forest department of Uttar Pradesh, with the help of an organization called Organic India Limited, Lucknow planted lakhs of tulsi saplings around Taj Mahal to protect its surface from industrial emissions. This step has yielded positive results,” Verma said.

“We are just asking the administration to take notice of these extra ordinary benefits of tulsi and take steps for utilizing them. Even simple steps like planting tulsi plants on road dividers, parks etc can bring a difference,” said Verma.

The reporter and also the editor make no effort to correct these glaring inconsistencies in the report itself, forget about doing nay research on the topic, or verifying the claims made by these people. Maybe this was like the paid news that is talked about a lot these days.

What I find here i that the agenda of what is to be done was already set, the conclusions were already drawn, by our ancestors, written in black and white in ancient texts. The point was only to justify what they were doing, and trying to provide a “scientific basis” of what they already believed to be true (for whatever reasons, mostly religious, and presence of a religious organization in this sort of confirms this).

A good example of  pseudo-science and bad science reporting.

Science, a humanistic approach

Science is an adventure of the whole human race to learn to live in and perhaps to love the universe in which they are. To be a part of it is to understand, to understand oneself, to begin to feel that there is a capacity within man far beyond what he felt he had, of an infinite extension of human possibilities . . .
I propose that science be taught at whatever level, from the lowest to the highest, in the humanistic way. It should be taught with a certain historical understanding , with a certain philosophical understanding , with a social understanding and a human understanding in the sense of the biography, the nature of the people who made this construction, the triumphs, the trials, the tribulations.

I. I. RABI
Nobel Laureate in Physics

via Project Physics Course, Unit 4 Light and Electromagnetism Preface

Do see the Project Physics Course which has come in Public Domain hosted at the Internet Archive, thanks to F.  James Rutherford.

Explosives or Not

We have earlier seen some quotes from the book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. There are two companion volumes to this book The Golem Unleashed: What You Should Know about Technology and Dr. Golem: How to think about Medicine. These series of books by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch provide us with examples from these fields which most of the times are ‘uncontested’. For example in the first volume they discuss about the famous 1920 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s predictions in general relativity by Eddington. This experiment is told as a matter-of-fact anecdote in physics, where petty borders of nationalism could not stop physics and physicists. But in the book, as they show inspite of scanty or almost no positive evidence, Eddington “Concluded” that the predictions were true. This they term “experimenters’ regress”.

The experimenter’s regress occurs when scientists cannot decide what the outcome of an experiment should be and therefore cannot use the outcome as a criterion of whether the experiment worked or not.

The Golem Unleashed pp. 106

In The Golem Unleashed they present us with many examples of this from field of technology. One of the examples is from the Challenger accident which Feynman made famous by courtroom drama. In this case they call the “experimenter’s regress” as “technologist’s regress”.

Recently I read (all further quotes from the same link)an episode in India which would fit in very with these episodes. This is regarding baggage  scanning machines installed at Indian airports. They were brought at 2 crore rupees per unit in 2010. But in August 2011 they failed the tests on tasks they were supposed to do.

The scanners are called in-line baggage inspection systems as they scan bags that go into the cargo hold of the aircraft after passengers check in and hand over their luggage to the airline. They use x-ray imaging and “automatic intelligence” to verify the contents of bags and determine whether they include explosives.

Now one would think that this would be as easy as it gets. Either the scanner detects whether the explosives are present in the baggage or they do not. But it is not as simple as it seems so. Now when the tests were done, the testers found the machines failed.

During the tests, security sources said that a technological specification committee of officials from the IB, RAW, SPG, NSG, BCAS and the civil aviation ministry passed bags containing 500 gm of six kinds of explosives, including PETN and ammonium nitrate, as well as IEDs through these systems. The scanners did not flag any of these bags as suspicious, the sources said.

So after this “failure” the companies which supplied these machines were asked to improve upon the machines or to share the software to recalibrate them. But the companies and interestingly Airport Authortiy of India AAI said that the testing methods were at fault. Now the explosives were passed and the machines did not detect them, then how can companies say that the testing methods were not working?

The machines work on the so called 70:30 principle.

“Though it works on a 70:30 principle, if there is an explosive in the 70 per cent, it will throw up the image of each and every bag that has dangerous substances. We would like to emphasise that the systems supplied and installed by our company at Indian airports are of state-of-the-art technology and are fully compliant with current standards.”

The 70:30 principle refers to the “automatic intelligence” used by Smiths Detection machines to clear 70 per cent of the baggage and reject the rest, according to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The machines reject 30 per cent of the baggage, the images of which are then sent to the screener. These systems have automatic intelligence capability and have been tested against a wide range of substances considered dangerous for aircraft. The details and specifications are never disclosed, or else terrorists would understand the software,”

But if anyway machines are doing the job, why not do it 100%? And the funny thing is that they are not sharing the software, which is the main agenda of the proprietary software companies. This is a case where people realize that they are just Users of the software under question. This argument that  “or else terrorists would understand the software” does not hold. They don’t need to if the machine is going to reject a whole lot of bags And in anyway if there are bus/holes in the software, a thousand eyes repair them much faster than a few. And this is The companies further say that

“The technology or physics is that x-ray based system can’t detect explosives, it is only approximate detection of dangerous substances,”

Why is the AAI siding (they are rather defending the companies) with the companies is something worth pondering.

AAI people say “The problem could be due to the sheer ignorance of officers who lacked the skills to test for explosives,”

Still with no unanimity in the testing results, the case truly presents us with a “technologist’s regress.”

Science And Certainty

Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking, at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only it’s not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure, but because they are the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they are the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment, we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far, its mostly correct.

via | Edge

This is something that I think separates science from religion. Religion is about absolutes, trust in the absolute God. And this is the difference that should be also taught to the students of science.

Reason and Faith – Misconceptions in Science Education

Reason does not work in matters of faith. But it may have a chance at clearing misconceptions.

via Tehelka

Truly so. In case of my field of study, namely science education research, it may be the other way round. The classic studies in science education aim at identifying the misconceptions that the learners have regarding a particular subject and then finding a mechanism by which they could be addressed.

This was a very simple but very basic presentation of  what most studies try to achieve, though the methodology may be different. There are some studies which present us with a conceptual framework so that all the responses and the problems with the learners can be seen in light of a theoretical construct. This they say will enable us to make sense of what we see in the classrooms, and what is present as representation in the learners mind. What I think they are trying to say is that we need to get to the conceptual structures that lead to formation of the misconceptions.

Now mind you that many of these misconceptions in science are very stubborn and people are very reluctant to give them up. The reason may be that many of these misconceptions come from direct factual experience in the real world. And from what I know about Philosophy of Science, we might want to make a case that all science is counter-intuitive to our everyday experience. This would explain why misconceptions in science arise. But would this case explain all the known misconceptions?

Let us do some analysis of how a particular misconception might arise.There can be two different reasons for a misconception to arise, if we adhere to deductive logic. That is to say we assume that we have a set of starting statements that are given, whose authenticity is not questioned. And from these set of statements we make certain deductions regarding the world out there. Now there can be two problems with this scenario, one is that the set of statements that we are taking for granted might be wrong, the other is that in the process of deduction that we have followed we made a mistake. The mistake is learnt only when the end result of our analysis is not consistent with the observations in the real world. Or it might be even the case that the so called misconception will lead to a correct answer, at least in some cases.  In these cases we have to resort to more detailed analysis of the thought structure which lead to the answers. Another identifying characteristic of the misconceptions is presence of the inconsistencies across different areas known to the learners. Whereas they might get a particular concept clearly and correctly, in applying same thing for another concept they just might revert to a completely opposite argument and in doing this they do not realise the inconsistency.

We will be clearer on this issue when we talk with a few examples. Suppose that we have a scenario in which we are trying to understand the phenomena of day and night, its causes and consequences. A typical argument in our class goes like this:

How many have seen the Sun set?

Almost all hands would go up, then comes the next question:

How many have seen the Sun rise?

Almost same number of hands go up, excepting a few, who are late risers like me. Some of the more intelligent and the more knowledgeable would say,

“Wait! Sun doesn’t rise and set, it is the Earth that is moving, so it causes the apparent motion of Sun across the sky, the start and end of which we call as day and night. So in conclusion the Sun doesn’t rise and set, it is an illusion created by motion of Earth.”

To this all of the class agrees. This is what they have learned in the text-book, and mind you the text-book represents truth and only truth, nothing else. It is there to dispel your doubts and misconceptions and is made by a committee of experts who are highly knowledgeable about these things. Now let us continue this line of reasoning and ask them the next question in this series.

Does the Moon rise? If so, does it rise everyday?

The responses to this question are mixed. Most of them would say that it does not rise, it is always there, up in the sky. Some would gather courage and say that it does rise.

Does the Moon set?

Again to this the response is mixed, and mostly negative. Most of them are adamant about the ever presence of the moon in the sky. The next question really upsets them

Do the stars rise and set?

Now this question definitely gets a negative response from almost all of them. Even the more knowledgeable ones fall. They have read different parts of the story, but have not connected them. They tell you the following: “No the stars do not move, they are there all the time.” They also tell you that there is something called as the fixed stars and this is in the text-book, which cannot be wrong. And when asked:

Why are we not able to see the stars during the day time?

They tell you “Of course you cannot see the stars during the day time. This is because our Sun, which is also a star, is too bright and the other stars too far away and hence are dim. So our Sun’s brightness, overwhelms the other stars, and hence they are not visible during the day time, but they are there nonetheless. In the night time, since the Sun is no longer visible, the stars become visible. Have you never noticed that during the evening twilight the stars become visible one by one, the brighter ones first. Whereas in the morning the brightest are the last ones to disappear.”

Of course, the things said above and the reasoning given sounds good. So much so that the respondents are convinced that they understand how things work, and have an elaborate reasoning mechanism to explain the observed things, in this case the formation of day and night and appearance / disappearance of stars during night and day respectively.

You ask them:

Don’t you think there is a problem with what you have just said?

“Where is the problem?”, they tell you. “We just explained scientifically how things are in heaven.”

Then you open the Pandora’s box,

“Well you have just said that the Sun doesn’t move really, it is the Earth that moves, and hence we see the apparent Sun rise and Sun set.”

Then they say, “Yes, that is the case. The Sun doesn’t move, but the Earth does.”

You ask, “How do you know this? Do you see that the Earth is moving?”

They say, “The textbook tells us so ” Some of the more knowledgeable ones say that “Galileo proved that the Earth moves and not the Sun. Since we are on Earth, we see only apparent motion of the Sun.”

You say: “But wait, just now you said that the Moon does not move, it is always in the sky. Also you said that the stars do not move, they are there all the time. Now if the Earth moves, then all these bodies should also move, if only, apparently.Then the stars must also move, just like the Sun does, do not forget that Sun is a star too! So other stars should also just set and rise like the Sun, and so should also the Moon!”

Or you can argue just the opposite: “I claim that it is the Sun that moves, Earth does not move. Isn’t it a lot more easier to explain this way, why we do see the Sun moving, because it moves. And we anyway do not see Earth moving! How will disprove me?”

Then the grumbles start. They have never thought about this. They knew the facts, but never connected them. This lead to the misconceptions regarding these things. They were right in parts, but never got a chance to connect the dots, metaphorically speaking.The reason for these misconceptions is the faith in the text-books, but if the text-books fail to perform the job of asking them the right question, where the reasoning alone can get rid of many of the misconceptions.

If we choose the alternative question, of challenging them to disprove that the Earth is stationary, almost most of them are unable to answer the question of disproving that the idea that the Sun moves and not Earth. They would suggest that we can see this from the satellite in the sky (Can we really?).

Most of us take the things for granted and never question many (or as in most cases, any) of them. And many times the facts are something we do not question. We say that “It is a fact.” This statement basically posits that the information which we think is out there can be unquestionable. But there are many flavours of the post-modern philosophy which challenge this position. They think that the facts themselves are relative, that is to say that one culture has different science than another one.  But let us leave this, and come back to our problem of the stars and the Sun and Moon.

Lets put out the postulates for the above arguments and try to deduce deductively the results that were obtained.

Claim 1: Sun doesn’t move.

Claim 2: Earth moves.

Observation 1: We see the Sun moving across the sky daily, it rises and it sets.

Explanation 1:  Since the Earth moves, and the Sun is stationary, we see that Sun moves apparently. This apparent motion of the Sun is seen as the Sunrise and the Sunset by us. This is what causes the day and night.

But we can have Observation 1 explained by another set of claims, which is exactly opposite, namely, that the Earth doesn’t move but the Sun moves.

Claim 3: The Sun moves.

Claim 4: The Earth does not move.

Explanation 2: Since the Earth does not move, and the Sun does, we just see the Sun passing by in the sky, around the Earth. This causes day and night.

We see that Explanations 1 and 2 are both valid for Observation 1, if the claims 1 and 2, 3 and 4 are true then the respective deductions from them, in this case the Explanations 1 and 2 respectively are also true.So in this case the logical deduction is correct, provided that the Claims or assumptions are correct. But this process does not tell you whether the claims themselves are true or not. But both set of assumptions, cannot be true at the same time. Either the Earth moves or it does not, it cannot be in a state of both. If at all we had an explanation which came from these assumptions which did not correspond with the observations, but was logically deducible, then we can question the assumptions or premises as philosophers call them.

Of course, the things said above and the reasoning given sounds good. So much so that the respondents are convinced that they
understand how things work, and have an elaborate reasoning mechanism

We can have one example of this type.

Assumption 5: Stars do not move, there are so called “fixed stars”.

Assumption 5: During the day time the Sun is too bright, as compared to the other stars.

Now in this case combining Assumption 5 (A5) with Observation 1 (Ob1) we would get the following:

Explanation 3: The stars are too dim as compared to Sun, hence we cannot see them during the day time, but they are present. Hence they do not move.

In Explanation 3 (E3) above the deduction has a problem. The deduction does not follow from the assumption. This is the other problem in which we talked about above.

Most of the people who would suggest these responses have mostly no background in astronomy. Even then the basic facts that Earth goes round the Sun and not the other way round are forced upon them, without any critical emphasis on why it is so. Neither are they presented at point with the cognitive struggle of another view point, namely the geo-centric view. So presenting the learners with opportunities that will make them observe things and make sense of the explanations in light of the assumptions that were made, will enhance the reasoning and help them to overcome some of their misconceptions.

But there is another observation which can be made of the skies. And it can be either done in the classroom with the aid of Free Softwares like Stellarium. After the round of above questions, we usually show the class the rising of the stars from the east. In a darkened room with a projector the effect is quite dramatic for those who have not witnessed such a thing before. So you can show the class, just as the Sun rises, all other celestial bodies like the Moon and the stars also must rise and this is an observed fact.

Observation 2: The stars and planets and the Moon also rise and set everyday.

So how do we make sense of this observation, Ob2 in the light of the assumptions that we have.

Assumption 6: Sun is a star.

Explanation 4: We observe that Sun moves during the day, from East to West. Sun is a star, hence all other stars should also move.

Now why this should be the case will be different for the geo-centric and the helio-centric theories. In case of H-C theory the explantion is simple. The Earth moves hence the stars appear to move in the opposite direction. And this applies to all the objects in the sky.

Since the Earth moves all other celestial objects will appear to move. In case of G-C theory we have to make an assumption that the
stars are “fixed” on some imaginary sphere, and the sphere as a whole rotates.

But coming back to the misconceptions, it is just the ad-hoc belief that the stars do not move (“fixed stars”) in conjunctions with another observation that in presence of too bright objects dim objects cannot be seen leads to belief that the stars are immobile and do not rise and set as the Sun does. There is another disconnection from another fact that they know, or are told in the textbooks, that  the apparent movement of the Sun is caused by the actual movement of  the Earth. There is no connection between these two facts which is  made explicit.

We think that providing opportunities for direct observation aided by software, Stellarium in this case, which help in visualizing the movements of celestial bodies will help in developing the skill of reasoning and explaining an observed phenomena.

Thinking Humans

There is at least one philosophical problem in
which all thinking men are interested: the problem of under-
standing the world in which we live, including ourselves,who are
part of that world, and our knowledge of it.
– Karl Popper

Conjectures and Refutations

Sophie’s World

I had heard about Sophie’s World from quite a number of sources. Finally I got a worn out copy from Fort for 100 bucks. Finished it in the next couple of days. This was about two years back. It is one of the best bedside introductions to philosophy…
Embedded in mystery and weirdness.
The best part of the climax is a p”hilosophical party”, which I also wish to have…

 Quotes:

Who are you?

“You are me.”

“I am you.”

You can’t experience being alive without realizing that you have to die, she thought.

Where does the world come from?

How could it be “the easiest way”?

… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…

Why was it so difficult to be absorbed in the most vital and, in a way, the most natural of all questions?

So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.

Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat.

and anyway it would be pointless to chase after someone who was determined to get away.

It all has to do with habit.

Do you think it can do what it does?

A philosopher never gets quite used to the world.

She understood that people had always felt a need to explain the processes of nature. Perhaps they could not live without such explanations. And that they made up all those myths in the time before there was anything called science.

… nothing can come from nothing …

Once we have determined what a particular philosopher’s project is, it is easier to follow his line of thought, since no one philosopher concerns himself with the whole of philosophy.

How can I “see” a flower, for example?

You probably wouldn’t admire a friend who was good at everything if it cost her no effort.

She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn; but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.
 Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?

Why did people quit playing when they grew up?

“I’m not playing!” Sophie retorted indignantly, “I’m doing a very complicated philosophical experiment!”

Do you believe in Fate?
Is sickness the punishment of the gods?
What forces govern the course of history?

Who had the right to call other people’s belief superstition?

One day we will meet, but I shall be the one to decide when and where.

Thus the “fortune-teller” is trying to foresee something that is really quite unforeseeable.
This is characteristic of all forms of foreseeing. And precisely because what they “see” is so vague, it is hard to repudiate fortune-tellers’ claims.

Over the entrance to the temple at Delphi was a famous inscription: KNOW THYSELF! It
reminded visitors that man must never believe himself to be more than mortal—and that no man can escape his destiny.

…wisest is she who knows she does not know…

Is there such a thing as natural modesty? 
Wisest is she who knows she does not know… 
True insight comes from within. 
He who knows what is right will do right.

But today, most people think it is “natural,” even though
it is still strictly forbidden in lots of countries.

 But the more she did, the more clearly she saw that knowing what you don’t know is also a kind of knowledge.

But didn’t all knowledge come into people’s heads from the outside?

The history of ideas is like a drama in many acts.

In order for democracy to work, people had to be educated enough to take part in the
democratic process.

“The question is complex and life is short.”

Modesty—or the lack of it—is first and foremost a matter of social convention.

“You can seek him in the present, you can seek him in the past, but you will never find
his equal.”  on Socrates

So it is no easy matter to distinguish between the teachings of Socrates and the philosophy of Plato.

Socrates saw his task as helping people to “give birth” to the correct insight, since
real understanding must come from within. It cannot be imparted by someone else. And only
the understanding that comes from within can lead to true insight.

Something within him left him no choice.

A  “philosopher” really means “one who loves wisdom.”

A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little.

…it troubled him that he knew so little.

“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”

Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.

All he knew was that he knew nothing—and it troubled him. So he became a
philosopher—someone who does not give up but tirelessly pursues his quest for truth.

Can you live a happy life if you continually do things you know deep down are wrong?

“We don’t learn anything there. The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that school-teachers think they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils.”

“It’s not him who’s disturbed. But he likes to disturb others—to shake them out of their rut.”

… several tall buildings had risen from the ruins …

 We still speak of Socratic or Platonic philosophy, but actually being Plato or Socrates is quite another matter.”

 Plato’s four tasks.
 First you must think over how a baker can bake fifty absolutely identical cookies.
 Then you can ask yourself why all horses are the same.
 Next you must decide whether you think that man has an immortal soul.
 And finally you must say whether men and women are equally sensible.

 … a longing to return to the realm of the soul…

Because even though some horses were as brown as bears and others
were as white as lambs, all horses had something in common.

All she knew was that dead bodies were either
cremated or buried, so there was no future for them.

Why are horses the same, Sophie? You probably don’t think they are at all. But there is
something that all horses have in common, something that enables us to identify them as
horses. A particular horse “flows,” naturally. It might be old and lame, and in time it will die. But
the “form” of the horse is eternal and immutable.

Because clearly, the mold itself must be utter perfection—and in a sense, more beautiful—in comparison with these crude copies.

… the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes…

Was it the path she had taken earlier?

How could a person who had never seen a live chicken or a picture of a chicken ever have any “idea” of a chicken?

What came first—the chicken or the “idea” chicken ?
Are we born with innate “ideas”? What is the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human? 
Why does it rain? 
What does it take to live a good life?

…a meticulous organizer who wanted to clarify our concepts …

You’ll have to content yourself with the fact that you are not the only one who can’t exceed your own limits.

Everybody is more or less peculiar. I am a person, so I am more or less peculiar. You have only one girl, so I am the most peculiar.

Common sense and conscience can both be compared to a muscle. If you don’t use a muscle, it gets weaker and weaker.”

The world is me, she thought.

And as you know, when a thing gets bigger and bigger it’s more difficult to keep it to yourself.

It is the only way to become more than a naked ape. It is the only way to avoid floating in a vacuum.

… going only part of the way is not the same as going the wrong way…

Sorry. My lips are sealed.”

But she had been nervous, and when you’re nervous its comforting to break all taboos.

“It’s easy to know better after the fact.”

We shall become better acquainted by and by

But philosophy is not a harmless party game.

One generation ages while another generation is brought forth.

Life is both sad and solemn. We are let into a wonderful world, we meet one another here, greet each other—and wander together for a brief moment. Then we lose each other and disappear as suddenly and unreasonably as we arrived.

“It’s not a silly question if you can’t answer it.

“Does all this really matter?” “Does it matter? You bet it matters!

“Smart. But not so smart really.”

“Is it really as simple as that?”

For the wages of sin is death.

That was a serious slip of the tongue.”
“But a slip of the tongue is never wholly accidental.”

…such stuff as dreams are made on…

She knew her mother knew that Sophie knew her mother wouldn’t believe it either.

“No, there’s a lot I don’t know.”

“Well, nearly everything that’s important comes either from Greece or from Italy.”

That was actually quite a lot in the space of one second.

carpe diem’—‘seize the day.’

‘memento mori,’ which means ‘Remember that you must die.’

But any display of magnificence presupposes a display of power. It has often been said that the political situation in the Baroque period was not unlike its art and architec

… he wanted to clear all the rubble off the site…

“You begin to work out your own philosophy.”

‘How can you be certain that your whole life is not a dream?’

Laboratory of The Mind

 Having gone through the book Robert Browns Laboratory of Mind – Thought Experiments in Natural
Sciences, I have taken the following notes. Though the book starts with examples from a varied disciplines it culminates trying to interpret the EPR paradox in a way. Though an interesting book to read for a philosopher of science. I would have liked to see some detailed discussions on some of the thought experiments, the book could have been more aptly titled  Thought Experiments in [Quantum]  Sciences, though there is an entire chapter on Einstein, who is the master of such thought experiments, equaled only by Galileo.

 Quotes

  As I was sitting in my chair
  I knew the bottom wasn’t there,
  Nor legs nor back, but I just sat,
  Ignoring little things like that.

  Logic alone cannot give us great wealth of mathematical results.

   since abstract objects if they did exist would be unknowable.

    just as no experiment in physics is really crucial, so no argument
    in philosophy is really conclusive. 73

    In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which
    decides what we can observe…’ 106

    the crucial difference between Einstein and those who make the
    correspondence with experimental fact the chief deciding factor
    for or against a theory: even though the ‘experimental facts’ at
    that time very clearly seemed to favor the theory of his opponents
    rather than his own, he finds the ad hoc character of their
    theories more significant and objectionable than an apparent
    disagreement between his theory and their ‘facts’. 120

    As Heisenberg put it, This probability function represents a
    mixture of two things, partly a fact and partly our knowledge of a
    fact’ (1958, 45). 128

    What is even meant by ‘an interpretation of the QM formalism’ is
    somewhat vague. Logicians have a precise notion of
    ‘interpretation’ or ‘model of a formal system’, but that won’t do
    here. To start with, the formalism is already partially
    interpreted; it is hooked to observational input and output in a
    clear and unambiguous way.  This partial interpretation is called
    the minimal statistical interpretation. What it can do is handle
    everything observable. It is often favoured by those who advocate
    an instrumentalist outlook for scientific theories in general. But
    our interest is with how the world really works, not just with
    making successful observable predictions. Only those lacking a
    soul are content with the minimal statistical interpretation. 131

    In many (perhaps all) scientific theories, there are elements
    which are taken as just brute facts. For instance, in Newton’s
    physics, inertia is an unexplained explainer; it accounts for
    other phenomena, but is itself unaccounted for. Are EPR
    correlations like that? 146

* Questions
1. When we see one swan to be white we do not conclude immediately
   that all swans are white. But on the other hand we conclude that
   all gold atoms have the same atomic number 79. Why is there an
   asymmetry between the two modes of thought?

2. Why does 3>2 seems intuitively pretty obvious, whereas `proton is heavier than
   electron’ does not?

3. Quine says, our conviction that 2+2=4 does not stem from laboratory
   observations, no matter how carefully performed or often
   repeated. Comment.

4. How would things be different if there were no abstract objects but
   everything else, including our ‘intuitions’, remained the same?

5. Is Newton’s first law only vacuously true? Let me elaborate on
   this. The first law as known states the following:

   /A body will continue its state motion or rest, unless it is acted
   upon by a force./
  
   Now how do we do this experiment in real? Can we have /any/ test
   body which is far away from any other body, so that there are /no/
   forces acting on the test body? If not, then how can we be assured
   about the validity of the first law?

6. Though we often now make fun of theories like phlogiston, caloric
   or aether, they were actually successful to some degree in their
   day and were believed by reasonable people. (Maxwell once said that
   the aether theory was the best confirmed in all science.) The
   physical world somehow or other contributed to the production of
   these rational, but false, beliefs. How is it that a (physical)
   world that contains no phlogiston, caloric, or aether can somehow
   be responsible for bringing about the phlogiston, caloric, and
   aether theories?

Seeing Red

Recently I came across a book called Seeing Red by H. Arp.
The book questions the fundamental ideas in the Big Bang Cosmology.
The basic idea that is questioned is that the Distance-redshift relation; that
is the more redshift and object has more distant it is from us. This idea forms
the bedrock on which the Big Bang Theory rests. So questioning this idea is out
of question for the Big Bang theorists. But even when an observation occurs which
does not confirm these ideas, it is so to speak, swept under the carpet, literally. When
the data confirms the beliefs that they hold; namely the theory; then the instrument is
working fine, when it does not, it is noise; the instrument is faulty.

Also it points out in the red tapism in the scientific community, where one follows
the leader or gets isolated, as  is the case with Arp. The opaqueness in the `peer review’
process is higlighted by numerous examples which arp cites in his interactions with
editors and referees for the prestigious journals in Astronomy. The very value of democratic
process in science is under question, so are the naive ideas of Popper who thought that scientists
always try to falsify their own theories. Here it seems it is the opposite case, with scientists
trying to suppress the observations which contradict with their own pet theories, by all
possible means, most of them un-ethical for a scientist, at least in theory. Along with the
journals, the conferences are also exposed, in which only the already set theories are entertained
with no data which questions the popular theories are allowed to be shown, which is the very
spirit of science. When every thing else fails the integrity of the person is under question.

The last chapter is a must read for all students of science.
Here are some of the quotes from the text:

 Quotes from Seeing Red

**
   09
  “No matter how conclusive the evidence, we have the power to
   minimize and suppress it.”

   12
   Scientists, particularly at the most prestigious institutions, regularly suppress and ridicule findings
   which contradict their current theories and assumptions.
  
   The average astronomer, however, would look at them and start to
   argue that they must be accidental, because astronomers now feel
   compelled to fit the observations to the theory and not vice versa.
  
   13
   But no matter how intimidatingly complex the calculation, no
   matter how small the probability of accident may be, the
   calculation does not tell you whether the result is true or not. In
   fact, no matter how significant the number is, scientists won’t
   believe if they don’t want to.
  
   14
   A reasonable response would be to notice such a case and say,
   “If I see a few more cases like this I will have to believe it is
   real.” Most astronomers say, “This violates proven physics
   [i.e. their assumptions] and therefore must be invalid. After all,
   no matter how improbable, it is only one case.”

  17
  The paper was also testimony to the fact that sensible analysis
  of observations was being blocked and ignored, while the high
  profile journals were submerged with a flood of elaborations of
  incorrect assumptions which prevented anyone from remembering
  anything important for more than a few years.

  21

  The establishment always confuses data with theories.

  Clearly, the main purpose of these “review of the theory talks” was
  to fix firmly in everyone’s mind what the party line was so that all
  observations could be interpreted properly.

  23

  Shortly thereafter, the Space Telescope Science Institute
  announced it was suspending the amateur program because it was “too
  great a strain on its expert personnel.”

  Professionals start out with a theory and only see those details
  which can be interpreted in terms of that theory.

  The reason the point is so sensitive is that the influential people
  in the field know what the observations portend, but they are too
  deeply committed to go back. The result will surely be to inexorably
  push academic science toward a position akin to that of the medieval
  church. But if that is the evolutionarily necessary solution, then
  perhaps we should hasten the process of replacing the present system
  with a more effective mode of doing science.

  25

  “Well I know you can’t be right, but I will help you where I can.”

  36

  Martin Elvis from the Cambridge Center for Astrophysics (CFA)
  jumped up and said, “That’s noise.” I argued that you could see that
  it was not noise.

  75

  One thing has been accomplished, though. I now understand what
  should be called the statistics of nihilism. It can be reduced to a
  very simple axiom: “No matter how many times something new has been
  observed, it cannot be believed until it has been observed again.” I
  have also reduced my attitude toward this form of statistics to an
  axiom: “No matter how bad a thing you say about it, it is not bad
  enough.”

  91

  “If you are wrong it doesn’t make any difference, if you are right it
  is enormously important.”

  175

  I feel very strongly about what happened and I want to make my
  position clear: Astrophysical Journal Letters is the normal journal
  for publishing new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. The
  telescope cost billions of dollars of public funds. The vast
  majority of page charges which pay for the publication of the
  journal come from government supported contracts. The overriding,
  first directive of the editor is to communicate important new
  astronomical results. If the editorial process violates its primary
  responsibility, it misuses public funds.

  261

  But the fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that people who are
  interested in power are spurred by emotions which interfere with
  their reason.

The Demarcation Problem

What is the demarcation problem?
I want to discuss an acute problem which philosophers of science have to face. The question it self is quite simple. You don’t have to be genius to understand the question, but the answer to this question is far from simple.
The question put simply would read something like this:
What is the difference between science and non-science?
Or
What is science?
If you ask this question perhaps to a school going kid, you will probably get a good and clear cut answer, Physics, Chemistry and Biology are sciences, [also perhaps mathematics also?]. Also the
perhaps this is the view not only school going kids but their teachers also feel and so do practicing scientists.
Most of the lay people are afraid of science and scientists. The very idea of science is mystical and scientists are seen as the worshippers of the nature itself. This is the common image which is also portrayed in the media, [so it is popular or it is the other way round?]. In the movies scientists are [if they are not the protagonists] shown as causing almost the end of the world, or having no hearts but for the subject of their study. This is the label of evil genius which has been put on them. The list of examples would be endless. But to give a few of my own favorite ones are as under:
Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin

And Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series

This can be easily seen that the public opinion about science is not what can be called good. Another thing to add here, if we in general see that there is an attribute scientific to any thing then the thing is has to be rational, logical and something that can be relied upon. Take for example the warning which every cigarette smoker reads but ignores, this warning is supposed to be `scientific’ so that you have to take it seriously, no bullshit here, this is what scientists say. This is The Truth, with a capital T. All these concepts are what I call the traditional concepts in Philosophy of Science [PoS hereafter], have a root in the beginning of the 20th century.
What is the point of bringing all this up in an philosophical discussion? Wait, what we will see is the fact that the things just mentioned have a very deep root in philosophy. What we want to do is to explicate this root.
We start our discussion with the so called modern era of the philosophy, which was mostly in the last century. In this era a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle presented the first dominant view point, which persisted till the first half of the century.
But this will be in another post….