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.

Rotating Earth: the proofs or significance of Leon Foucault’s pendulum – Part 1

rotating-earth

In an earlier post, we had discussed proofs of the round shape of the Earth. This included some ancient and some modern proofs. There was, in general, a consensus that the shape of the Earth was spherical and not flat and the proofs were given since the time of ancient Greeks. Only in the middle ages, there seems to have been some doubt regarding the shape of the Earth. But amongst the learned people, there was never a doubt about the shape of the Earth. Counter-intuitive it may seem when you look at the near horizon, it is not that counter-intuitive. We can find direct proofs about it by looking around and observing keenly.

But the rotation of Earth proved to be a more difficult beast to tame and is highly counter-intuitive. Your daily experience does not tell you the Earth is rotating, rather intuition tells you that it is fixed and stationary. Though the idea of a moving Earth is not new, the general acceptance of the idea took a very long time. And even almost 350 years after Copernicus’ heliocentric model was accepted, a direct proof of Earth’s rotation was lacking. And this absence of definitive proof was not due to a lack of trying. Some of the greatest minds in science, mathematics and astronomy worked on this problem since Copernicus but were unable to solve it. This included likes of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and host of incredibly talented mathematicians since the scientific revolution. Until Leon Foucaultin the mid-1800s provided not one but two direct proofs of the rotation of the Earth. In this series of posts, we will see how this happened.

When we say the movement of the Earth, we also have to distinguish between two motions that it has: first its motion about its orbit around the Sun, and second its rotational motion about its own axis. So what possible observational proofs or direct evidence will allow us to detect the two motions? In this post, we will explore how our ideas regarding these two motions of the Earth evolved over time and what type of proofs were given for and against it.

Even more, there was a simple geometrical fact directly opposed to the Earth’s annual motion around the Sun and there was nothing that could directly prove its diurnal rotation. (Mikhailov, 1975)

Let us consider the two components of Earth’s motion. The first is the movement around the Sun along the orbit. The simplest proof for this component of Earth’s motion is from the parallax that we can observe for distant stars. Parallax is the relative change in position of objects when they are viewed from different locations. The simplest example of this can be seen with our own eyes.

Straighten your hand, and hold your thumb out. Observe the thumb with both the eyes open. You will see your thumb at a specific location with respect to the background objects. Now close your left eye, and look at how the position of the thumb has changed with respect to the background objects. Now open the right eye, and close the left one. What we will see is a shift in the background of the thumb. This shift is related by simple geometry to the distance between our eyes, called the baseline in astronomical parlance. Thus even a distance of the order of a few centimetres causes parallax, then if it is assumed that Earth is moving around the Sun, it should definitely cause an observable parallax in the fixed stars. And this was precisely one of the major roadblock

Earth moving around an orbit raised mechanical objections that seemed even more serious in later ages; and it raised a great astronomical difficulty immediately. If the Earth moves in a vast orbit, the pattern of fixed stars should show parallax changes during the year. (Rogers, 1960)

The history of cosmic theories … may without exaggeration be called a history of collective obsessions and controlled schizophrenias.
– Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers

Though it is widely believed that Copernicus was the first to suggest a moving Earth, it is not the case. One of the earliest proponents of the rotating Earth was a Greek philosopher named Aristarchus. One of the books by Heath on Aristarchus is indeed titled Copernicus of Antiquity (Aristarchus of Samos). A longer version of the book is Aristarchus of Samos: The Ancient Copernicus. In his model of the cosmos, Aristarchus imagined the Sun at the centre and the Earth and other planets revolving around it. At the time it was proposed, it was not received well. There were philosophical and scientific reasons for rejecting the model.

aristarchus-01
Aristarchus’s model of the heliocentric Universe

First, let us look at the philosophical reasons. In ancient Greek cosmology, there was a clear and insurmountable distinction between the celestial and the terrestrial. The celestial order and bodies were believed to be perfect, as opposed to the imperfect terrestrial. After watching and recording the uninterrupted waltz of the sky over many millennia, it was believed that the heavens were unchangeable and perfect. The observations revealed that there are two types of “stars”. First the so-called “fixed stars” do not change their positions relative to each other. That is to say, their angular separation remains the same. They move together as a group across the sky. Imagination coupled with a group of stars led to the conceiving of constellations. Different civilizations imagined different heroes, animals, objects in the sky. They formed stories about the constellations. These became entwined with cultures and their myths.

telescope_0013

The second type of stars did change their positions with respect to other “fixed stars”. That is to say, they changed their angular distances with “fixed stars”. These stars, the planets, came to be called as “wandering stars” as opposed to the “fixed stars”.

Ancient Greeks called these lights πλάνητες ἀστέρες (planētes asteres, “wandering stars”) or simply πλανῆται (planētai, “wanderers”),from which today’s word “planet” was derived.

Planet

So how does one make sense of these observations? For the fixed stars, the solution is simple and elegant. One observes the set of stars rising from the east and setting to the west. And this set of stars changes across the year (which can be evidenced by changing seasons around us). And this change was found to be cyclical. Year after year, with observations spanning centuries, we found that the stars seem to be embedded on inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. This “model” explains the observed phenomena of fixed stars very well.

The unchanging nature of this cyclical process observed, as opposed to the chaotic nature on Earth, perhaps led to the idea that celestial phenomena are perfect. Also, the religious notion of associating the heavens with gods, perhaps added to them being perfect. So, in the case of perfect unchanging heavens, the speeds of celestial bodies, as evidenced by observing the celestial sphere consisting of “fixed stars” was also to be constant. And since celestial objects were considered as perfect, the two geometrical objects that were regarded as perfect the sphere and the circle were included in the scheme of heavens. To explain the observation of motion of stars through the sky, their rising from the east and setting to the west, it was hypothesized that the stars are embedded on the inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. We being fixed on the Earth, observe this rotating sphere as the rising and setting of stars. This model of the world works perfectly and formed the template for explaining the “wandering stars” also.

These two ideas, namely celestial objects placed on a circle/sphere rotating with constant speed, formed the philosophical basis of Greek cosmology which would dominate the Western world for nearly two thousand years. And why would one consider the Earth to be stationary? This is perhaps because the idea is highly counter-intuitive. All our experience tells us that the Earth is stationary. The metaphors that we use like rock-solid refer to an idea of immovable and rigid Earth. Even speculating about movement of Earth, there is no need for something that is so obviously not there. But as the history of science shows us, most of the scientific ideas, with a few exceptions, are highly counter-intuitive. And that the Earth seems to move and rotate is one of the most counter-intuitive thing that we experience in nature.

The celestial observations were correlated with happenings on the Earth. One could, for example, predict seasons as per the rising of certain stars, as was done by ancient Egyptians. Tables containing continuous observations of stars and planets covering several centuries were created and maintained by the Babylonian astronomers. It was this wealth of astronomical data, continuously covering several centuries, that became available to the ancient Greek astronomers as a result of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. Having such a wealth of data led to the formation of better theories, but with the two constraints of circles/spheres and constant speeds mentioned above.

With this background, next, we will consider the progress in these ideas.

A stabilised image of the Milky Way as seen from a moving Earth.

 

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.

Thomas Kuhn on the role of textbooks in science education

The single most striking feature of this [science] education is that, to an extent wholly unknown in other fields, it is conducted entirely through textbooks. Typically, undergraduate and graduate students of chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, or biology acquire the substance of their fields from books written especially for students.

Thomas Kuhn The Essential Tension

Here Kuhn is trying to show us the nature of science education which is usually divergent from the historical processes and events which led to the currently accepted theories. Most of the textbooks rather show the content matter which makes sense conceptually in a rationally organised manner. Of course, the ideal goal, at least in the physical sciences, is to create a hypothetico-deductive model in which a given theory, its predictions, explanations and implications can be derived from some basic definitions and axioms. For example, an introductory text on motion in physics usually starts with definitions and assumptions usually of a mass point, and/or operations that are defined on it. The text does not describe the historical conditions in which this conceptual approach arose, rather it adapts a very pragmatic pedagogical approach. It defines the term and ends it there, but in this process, it redefines the conceptual history. This approach assumes that there is no pedagogical merit or role in introducing a concept in its historical context. This perhaps is also linked to Poppers distinction of the context of discovery and the context of justification. What we see is a rational reconstruction of historical processes to make sense of them in a straightforward manner.

 

 

Science Education and Textbooks

What are the worst possible ways of approaching the textbooks for teaching science? In his book Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science pedagogue Michael Matthews quotes (p. 51) Kenealy in this matter. Many of the textbooks of science would fall in this categorisation. The emphasis lays squarely on the content part, and that too memorized testing of it.

Kenealy characterizes the worst science texts as ones which “attempt to spraypaint their readers with an enormous amount of ‘scientific facts,’ and then test the readers’ memory recall.” He goes on to observe that:

Reading such a book is much like confronting a psychology experiment which is testing recall of a random list of nonsense words. In fact, the experience is often worse than that, because the book is a presentation that purports to make sense, but is missing so many key elements needed to understand how human beings could ever reason to such bizarre things, that the reader often blames herself or himself and feels “stupid,” and that science is only for special people who can think “that way” … such books and courses have lost a sense of coherence, a sense of plot, a sense of building to a climax, a sense of resolution. (Kenealy 1989, p. 215)

What kind of pedagogical imagination and theories will lead to the textbooks which have a complete emphasis on the “facts of science”? This pedagogical imagination also intimately linked to the kind of assessments that we will be using to test the “learning”. Now if we are satisfied by assessing our children by their ability to recall definitions and facts and derivations and being able to reproduce them in writing (handwriting) in a limited time then this is the kind of syllabus that we will end up with. Is it a wonder if students are found to be full of misconceptions or don’t even have basic ideas about science, its nature and methods being correct? What is surprising, at least for me, that even in such a situation learning still happens! Students still get some ideas right if not all.

A curriculum which does not see a point in assessing concepts has no right to lament at students not being able to understand them or lacking conceptual understanding. As Position Paper on Teaching of Science in NCF 2005 remarks

‘What is not assessed at the Board examination is never taught’

So, if the assessment is not at a conceptual level why should the students ever spend their time on understanding concepts? What good will it bring them in a system where a single mark can decide your future?

 

Just for fun or how to invite readers to immerse in your book

These problems are for fun. I never meant them to be taken too seriously. Some you will find easy enough to answer. Others are enormously difficult, and grown men and women make their livings trying to answer them. But even these tough ones are for fun. I am not so interested in how many you can answer as I am in getting you to worry over them.

What I mainly want to show here is that physics is not something that has to be done in a physics building. Physics and physics problems are in the real, everyday world that we live, work, love, and die in. And I hope that this book will capture you enough that you begin to find your own flying circus of physics in your own world. If you start thinking about physics when you are cooking, flying, or just lazing next to a stream, then I will feel the book was worthwhile. Please let me know what physics you do find, along with any corrections or comments on the book. However, please take all this as being just for fun.

From Preface of Jearl Walkers The Flying Circus of Physics

Why did not scientific revolution occur in India?

If one wonders why did not the scientific revolution happen in India some aspects of how knowledge was limited might have an implication. I present here a comparative study of conditions prevailing in the two societies, and how the presence of the printing press disrupted the traditional balance of knowledge and its sharing in the society. Unfortunately, in India, we have no counterpart to this event which could have lead to the spread of knowledge amongst the masses. Even if it were, the rigid caste system would have made it almost impossible for knowledge to be so freely transferred. In an era of a global village, we still feel strong repercussions of caste-based discrimination today.

Consider this about how knowledge was restricted to apprenticeship and was often lost in transition amongst the traditional Indian craftsmen.

The secret of perfection in art and crafts resided in individuals 
and was never widely publicized. Master-craftsmen trained their 
apprentices from a very tender age but they did not teach them the 
more subtle aspects of their craft. Neither did they write books 
revealing the secrets of their perfection. These points were revealed 
by the master-craftsman only towards the end of his life and only to 
a favoured apprentice. Their secrets often died with them. p. 211 
(Rizvi - Wonder that Was India Part 2)

This was compounded by the fact that the profession that one could practice was decided by the caste one was born in. In addition to this, the mostly oral nature of the Hindu theology in Sanskrit and exclusive rights to Brahmins as custodians of this knowledge played a huge role in stifling any societal or scientific progress. The extant books (both theological and scientific, mathematical) were mostly in Sanskrit, which again restricted their readership. And as they were reproduced by hand the copies and access to them was limited. The mobility between castes was strictly forbidden. Thus we have both theological as well as scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge bound by tradition which was not available to the general public by its design. Any leakage of such a knowledge to people who were not intended to know it was met with severe punishments.

In contrast to this, consider the situation in Europe. The church did have an control over the knowledge that was taught in the universities. The Bible was in Latin, which can be seen as European counterpart of Sanskrit in terms of its functions and reach, and the Church held authority over its interpretation and usage. The impact of movable type on the spread of the Bible is well known. The translation of the Bible to publicly spoken languages and its subsequent spread to the general public is seen as a major event in the renaissance and subsequently that of the scientific revolution. This was only possible due to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, again this did not have any counterpart in the Indian context. But as with any subversive technology the printing press did not only print the Bible. Soon, it was put to use to create materials for all types of readership.

First appearing around 1450 in the German city of Mainz, printing 
rapidly spread from Johann Gutenberg's original press throughout 
the German territories and northern Italy, most notably Venice. 
This establishment, during the second half of the century, of 
scores of print shops corresponds to two related features of 
European, especially Western European, society at that time.
The first is the fairly high rate of literacy on which the market 
for books and pamphlets was based. The second is the quite sudden 
wide availability of a multitude oE philosophical and general 
intellectual options. Together, these two features created a 
situation in which knowledge for very many people was no longer 
so chained to the texts of the university curriculum. This was a 
new situation practically without parallel. p. 24
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences)

This spread led to the creation of books in areas of knowledge where it was guarded or passed through apprenticeship.

In 1531 and 1532 there first appeared a  group of small booklets, 
known as Kunstbüchlein ("Iittle craft-books"), on a variety of 
practical craft and technical subjects. These anonymous books were 
produced from the shops of printers in a number of German cities, 
and catered to what they revealed as an eager appetite for such 
things not just among German craftsmen, but among literate people of 
the middling sort in general. They broke the perceived monopoly of 
the craft guilds over possession of such practical knowledge as made 
up metallurgy, dyeing or other chemical recipes, pottery or any of 
a multitude of potential household requisites. p. 26
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences) 

Though, as Dear rightly points in the next paragraph just having access to information of paper about a craft does not necessarily lead to practice as experts, it nonetheless helped to overcome a belief about the fact that knowledge indeed can be transferred in the form of books via the printing press.

In the coming century, the presence of the printing press helped the spread of knowledge to all parts of Europe in all subjects of inquiry. There is no parallel to this in the Indian context. Neither the technology (in the form of a printing press) nor the drive to spread the knowledge to the general masses was present in India. In this post, I have glossed over many details but I believe there were two main reasons for a scientific revolution to not happen in India are, first the connection of caste with profession and non-availability of a technology to spread knowledge to the general public. As a result, though earlier we had a better technology and scientific knowledge we did not have a Scientific Revolution. In the current era, with the connected devices, and also with caste not being a barrier to one’s profession, who knows we might be on the doorsteps of a revolution.

 

Round Earth: The Proofs

What is the evidence for a round Earth?

In this post, we explore some of the evidence for proving that the Earth is indeed spherical in shape (if not a perfect one), and not a flat one. Though in the current age we can all point to the images of Earth taken from space  (like the one shown below)

In the age of satellites is easy for us to dismiss the doubting minds who think that the Earth is not flat. But this was always not so. Apart from the evidence from the space age, people in the past had good evidence and arguments for believing that the Earth was indeed spherical in shape and not flat or any other shape. Somehow this misconception that all ancient people considered that the Earth was flat, was generated in nineteenth-century science books.

earth

Ancient evidence

telescope_0008

It is commonly believed that people till very recently believed that the Earth is flat and that some European explorers, by circumnavigating the Earth, proved that it was round. But this is not correct. Ancient Greeks already knew about the spherical shape of the Earth, and it forms the basis of many cosmological models that they built. This, in turn, had implications for the philosophical worldview of the ancient

Aristotle presents us with one of the first evidence for the roundedness of the Earth. For the ancient Greeks, the circle and the sphere presented the perfect form in nature. This was also tied to their worldview in which the celestial and terrestrial was demarcated from each other. The celestial bodies, which included the planets and stars were supposed to be perfect. There were seven planets known to the ancients, which included the Sun and the Moon. The planets were supposed to be spherical themselves revolving with a constant speed in circular orbits around the Earth. One of the core assumptions was that the heavens are unchangeable. So anything that was considered celestial was by definition (a) perfect (spherical or circular), (b) unchangeable (constant). So any mechanism that explained celestial phenomenon had to include these two concepts.

 

The cosmology of the ancient Greeks then was built upon these basic assumptions which were non-negotiable for them. This lead to the formation of various models based on the basic theme of a fixed Earth and planets on circular orbits moving constant speeds. Due to these assumptions and also due to some observed phenomena, led to the conclusion that Earth should also be indeed spherical.

Let us look at the arguments given by Aristotle in this regard. This is from Book II of On the Heavens.

The shape of the heaven is of necessity spherical; for that is the shape most appropriate to its substance and also by nature primary.

Part 11

With regard to the shape of each star, the most reasonable view is that they are spherical. It has been shown that it is not in their nature to move themselves, and, since nature is no wanton or random creator, clearly she will have given things which possess no movement a shape particularly unadapted to movement. Such a shape is the sphere, since it possesses no instrument of movement. Clearly then their mass will have the form of a sphere. Again, what holds of one holds of all, and the evidence of our eyes shows us that the moon is spherical. For how else should the moon as it waxes and wanes show for the most part a crescent-shaped or gibbous figure, and only at one moment a half-moon? And astronomical arguments give further confirmation; for no other hypothesis accounts for the crescent shape of the sun’s eclipses. One, then, of the heavenly bodies being spherical, clearly the rest will be spherical also.

In Part 13 of the book Aristotle talks about the shape of the Earth.

There are similar disputes about the shape of the earth. Some think it is spherical, others that it is flat and drum-shaped. For evidence they bring the fact that, as the sun rises and sets, the part concealed by the earth shows a straight and not a curved edge, whereas if the earth were spherical the line of section would have to be circular. In this they leave out of account the great distance of the sun from the earth and the great size of the circumference, which, seen from a distance on these apparently small circles appears straight. Such an appearance ought not to make them doubt the circular shape of the earth. But they have another argument. They say that because it is at rest, the earth must necessarily have this shape. For there are many different ways in which the movement or rest of the earth has been conceived.

Here we see the cognisance of the fact that the curvature tends to be linear when see it is too large. Aristotle then goes on to discard the ideas by Anaximenes, Anaxogoras and Democritus who claim that flatness of the Earth is responsible for it being still. He argues, even a spherical Earth can remain at rest. The Earth being at rest and it being spherical are related. In Part 14 he takes this discussion further. The first argument uses the symmetry of weight distribution.

Its shape must necessarily be spherical. For every portion of earth has weight until it reaches the centre, and the jostling of parts greater and smaller would bring about not a waved surface, but rather compression and convergence of part and part until the centre is reached.

He further argues using reasoning of additional weight distribution how a spherical Earth can still be

If the Earth was generated, then, it must have been formed in this way, and so clearly its generation was spherical; and if it is ungenerated and has remained so always, its character must be that which the initial generation, if it had occurred, would have given it. But the spherical shape, necessitated by this argument, follows also from the fact that the motions of heavy bodies always make equal angles, and are not parallel. This would be the natural form of movement towards what is naturally spherical. Either then the earth is spherical or it is at least naturally spherical.

After this, he looks at evidence from lunar eclipses to reason that Earth is indeed spherical.

eclipse

The evidence of the senses further corroborates this. How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind straight, gibbous, and concave-but in eclipses the outline is always curved: and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth’s surface, which is therefore spherical.

Finally Aristotle takes into account the fact that stars change their positions in the sky relative to the horizon when we move to North or South, indicating that we are indeed on a spherical surface. This will not happen on a flat surface.

stars

Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon. There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighbourhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars, which in the north are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set. All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size: for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent.

Another evidence which can be seen since antiquity is that the masts of the ships on ocean became visible first on the horizon, the ship appear later. This can be simply explained by assuming that the surface of the ocean is curved too.

telescope_0010

Thus we have seen the ancient evidence for a spherical Earth. It was well known and well established fact, both theoretically and empirically.

Images from:

All About The Telescope – P. Klushantsev

A Book About Stars and Planets – Y. Levitan

Physics for The Inquiring Mind – Eric Rogers.

 

The Wolf-Children of Midnapore

Physics was one of the first sciences which helped develop the modern “scientific method”. One of the processes in the scientific method involves controlling of variables during an experiment. Performing an experiment in this manner one can possibly find the effect of the independent variable on a dependent variable. In this manner, we are supposed to find out if there is any causal link/correlation between the variables. This method was seen as a hallmark of true science and was widely adopted while discovering and developing new other disciplines.

Now in the case of psychology and behavioural sciences, we have a long-running debate regarding the effects of nature and nurture on human growth and development. By nature here it is meant our genetic make-up, while by nurture it is meant the environment (both physical and social) around us. For long people have tried to establish the link between nature/nurture and various aspects of human growth and development. This dichotomy has a deeper connection to the nature of knowledge and learning, which in turn in related to the two basic schools of philosophy: empiricism and rationalism. In the extreme forms, put very crudely, empiricism proposes that we can gain knowledge through our sense organs only, while rationalism proposes that we make sense of the world in our mind only. For example, in The Matrix the machines have developed a simulation which makes the human mind “experience” the world only in the mind. When Morpheus asks Neo

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Here Morpheus is actually subscribing to the rationalist school as he denies that our sense organs are the primary source of our knowledge. In The Matrix the brain is simulated and it doesn’t know it is being simulated. How can we ever know? This is exemplified further by many Gedanken experiments which have been brought out by psychologists and philosophers. The Brain in a Vat is an example of such experiments.

On the other hand, the other extreme form of human development from empiricists would be considering humans a tabula rasaIn this perspective, the human brain is not born with any innate capabilities. And it is the experience with the physical world through the sense organs makes us understand the world. Thus, in this case, the environment is the factor on which our growth and development occur.

Now coming back to nature vs nurture debate, whether people believe in either depends strongly on the orientation and grounding people have regarding how the society works. We will see what is the basis both philosophical, epistemological and political when people subscribe to these viewpoints. First some thoughts on what exactly we mean by human growth and development in this context. We all see human babies grow from infants who are incapable of talking, understanding, even walking for that matter to being adults in a society who can talk, understand and do a variety of other things which infant versions of ours are not capable. How does this change occur, over let’s say a span of 15-20 years or so? Are we predestined by our genes to develop in a particular way, or does our immediate environment play a fundamental and crucial role in making this happen? What is the nature of learning and what is it dependent upon? Physical growth can be perhaps linked to the unfolding of the genetic predispositions that we have. For example, physical maturity occurs with age. Piaget has given us evidence on the basis of the so-called Piagetian tasks that thinking also matures with age and is a universal phenomenon across cultures.

But what happens to our thinking or our behaviours are they too natural and will occur even if we are not in contact with the society? People have thought over this question for a long time. We will discuss the evidence that people over the last 200 years or so have put up in support of each side, which is related to the title of the post.

In general, there are two groups who subscribe to the primacy of nurture in human development. The first group is of the people who are usually are influenced by Marxism and have a left orientation tend to favour nurture more than the nature aspect. According to them the social environment, including the socio-economic status of the family influence the way in which humans develop and learn. For this school of thought, the genetic composition (nature) of the individual has little or no effect on the way the individual develops or learns. This is in line with the central tenets of Marxism, in which capital plays a fundamental role in the way society works. The construct of cultural capital is a good way to understand how this group, in general, thinks about the effects of society and societal factors on human growth and development.

The other school which subscribes to the primacy of nurture in human learning and development is behaviourism. The behaviourists, very strongly influenced by logical positivists, and playing along with the zeitgeist gave credence in psychological studies to only things that could be observed. This was linked to the deep debates in the philosophy of science of the 1930s which was dominated by the logical positivists. The basic idea was that if anything is not observable directly by our sense experience like human thinking, it should not be considered scientific. This led to an entire programme which was very influential during the 30s-50s in which studying higher order thinking skills were banished from scientific enterprise. The definition of learning in case of behaviourists was seen in terms of behaviour. And according to them, the behaviour could be controlled by operant conditioning hence effectively we could control learning by providing required stimulus in the environment.

Bringing in the metaphor of a blank slate, people with this leaning would say all individuals are of equal potential, given a chance and environment anyone can perform anything. This was one of the basic assumptions of behaviourism. In Marxist sociological perspective, the metaphor of the blank slate allowed individuals to transcend the class that they were born in and to achieve their true potential irrespective of the social status of their parents. The quote below summarises this viewpoint very well:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.

From – Behaviorism by J. B. Watson, 1930, pp. 82.

Now let us look at the other group which takes the genetic makeup of ours as the most influential aspect for development and learning. In this perspective, your genes determine everything. There is no scope for anyone to do anything which the genes do not permit. Sometimes this is termed as genetic determinism. According to this view, the potential for learning and development is completely determined by genes. Unless one has a particular genotype, one by definition, is not capable of doing certain things. Now, of course, we do inherit our biological and physical structures from our parents. Physical characteristics like hair and eye colour, skin colour, size are inherited from our parents. So are tendencies for certain diseases like diabetes and others. Now the question that is interesting is this heritance limited to only physical characteristics or it can be used for determining other factors like intelligence, learning and development also?

In general, the people who are conservatives, leaning towards the right favour this point of view. This is because it provides a sort of legitimacy to the existing social order. The people who are in positions of power are there because they have better genes or are from a better stock. This also implies that nothing can be done to improve this situation as nature is unmutable. Of course, this position has racial, class gender, and caste overtones. Such an argument can be used to effectively defend and justify any existing social order. Sometimes, this entire range of ideas is put under the notion of Social Darwinism. Analogies from the natural world like artificial selection and breeding for producing better breeds (of plants and animals) are used to justify such a worldview. The movie GATTACA shows an example of a dystopian future is a good example of how a society where your genes are the only factors to determine your worth. In such a world, what matters is what your genes are, and not your skills.

Now apart from the philosophical, sociological and cultural aspects do we have any “scientific evidence” for deciding which factors are more influential. There have been many studies which claim a very strong evidence (mostly observational) regarding either worldviews. But none of the experiments or studies are seen to be conclusive. Critics on the other side point to experimental issues with data, samples, statistics, assumptions and personal beliefs and so on. Let us ask ourselves this question:

Can we design any critical experiments which will decide once and for all whether nature is important or nurture?

Ideally, the experimental design should be such that we should be able to control for nature and nurture. Now how would such an “ideal” experiment be designed? Let us look at each of the two variables. To control for nature we can take individuals from different genetic stocks and give them similar treatment. This way we will know from the differences in the outcomes/performance of the individuals and accordingly in their genes too. Now the question arises if we take adult individuals from different genetic stocks, they are already “contaminated” via the various nurture aspects of growing up. For example, they might have a different value system, a different language, different learning experiences, different social norms, different environments and so on. So ideally an “uncontaminated” sample should be with us.

How do we create an uncontaminated sample of human beings? Who are not touched by any aspect of nurture or environment? Ideally, we take don’t allow nurture to touch the newborn infants in any manner. That is to take them away from their mothers right after they were born. Oh! What a horror!! But such a thing would never be done in practice now. Though in the ancient times there were many who actually performed similar “experiments“. There are serious moral and ethical issues involved. Now strict research guidelines are in place whenever human subjects are involved in research studies. This came to force when evidence emerged post-World-War II which involved experimenting on human subjects by treating them like animals. That is basically not valuing human life and dignity. Hence I had put “ideal” in quotes.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book the protagonist Mowgli, is raised by the wolves. Although fictional, this story presents us with an interesting case study. Mowgli, who has been raised by the wolves, is not human in the sense of how we identify with the society. He identifies himself as a wolf and behaves like one. But then this is fictional story and a Mowgli is a fictional character. Now if we could find such an individual like Mowgli, we could perhaps test many of the basic questions regarding aspects of nature and nurture. One such opportunity came to us in an episode which is the title of this post: The Wolf-Children of Midnapore.

Now it so happened that in 1920s a rector  Joseph Amrito Lal Singh in an orphanage in the town of Midnapore in Bengal, India reportedly found two girls in a wolf den. They were named Amala and Kamala. The discovery of these two girls was seen as a major event. The rector apparently maintained details notes about their discover and behavior in his diary. So much so, it was published into a book Wolf-Children and Feral Man J.A.L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg published in 1942. The discovery was also reported in a reputed journal as Scientific American (Vol. 164, No. 3 (MARCH · 1941), pp. 135-137).

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 8.16.26 AM

So what did the rector observe in these two children? Can it resolve any fundamental questions regarding the nature-nurture debate? The book and the entries in the diary of Rev. Singh make many such attempts. However, it so happened that people raised serious doubts about the authenticity of the story, and further analysis has shown that it was a hoax. Recently, there was a case in which a girl was discovered living with monkeys. Again, girl showed some feral characteristics, but according to some reports nothing conclusive could be said.

So our basic question regarding nature/nurture remains unanswered. Perhaps due to moral and ethical concerns we may never be able to answer question on “experiments” such as these. But there have been other ways, surveys, studies and experiments which do indicate the complex ways in which nature and nurture do interact to produce the social human animal. But what cases like these show is that there is so much that is still to be discovered in the respect of nature/nurture debate. Perhaps we will be able to resolve these issues at some point.

http://www.midnapore.in/wolf-children-of-midnapore/wolf-children-of-midnapore14.html

Cover of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: A good example of bad science

carl-sagan-dargons-of-eden-cover

Carl Sagan was a wonderful writer. He wrote many amazing books for popularising science and also championed against pseudo-science prevalent in the society. Like many countless others Sagan’s works have inspired and fired imagination in me. Particularly he decimated the arguments made by Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision. Two of his books which deal with the topics of pseudo-science and anti-science are Broca’s Brain, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in Dark. Sagan is most meticulous when explaining things, and adds disclaimers whereever they are necessary and needed.

When I was reading his book Dragon’s of Eden (a Pulitzer prize winner !) the cover of the book stuck me as unusual. The Wikipedia page says that the cover artist was Don Davis. The cover illustration shows a humanoid animal sitting below a tree (of knowledge?) in a serene landscape with a lake and few herbivored near it. Interestingly, and also problematically the cover also shows a variety of dinosaurs in the area as the hominid. This is rather unsettling. And it is definitely wrong. The dinosaurs for all we know, and Sagan knew this too well (for example, see Demon Haunted World), became extinct long before any humanoid forms came into existence. So showing them existing contemporarily is wrong, and factually incorrect science. This illustration goes against all that is known via fossil records that we have.

I wonder what made Sagan, who otherwise was skpetical and very particular, choose this wrong and factually incorrect illustration for the cover of his book, or that he did not have any say in choosing the cover of the book?

Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 1

I recently finished I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is an introduction to the core ideas about self, self-reference, feedback loops and consciousness as  an emergent phenomena. The core question that is considered is

What do we mean when we say I?

Hofstadter in the preface indicates his angst at many people missing out on the core ideas of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. No doubt GEB is hard to read, and each one makes their own meaning of it.

Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB. xiii

I Am A Strange Loop is sort of a prequel to GEB, which came afterwards. In the book the focus is on developing an idea of emergent self, in which our consciousness is seen to emerge from feedback that we have by interacting with the world. Hofstadter uses a variety of examples to drive home the point of recursive feedback loops, giving rise to strange phenomena. The central claim is that we, our sense of self, our idea of consciousness derives from recursive interactions and feedback that we get via our senses.

He starts with a dialogue he wrote as a teenager between Plato and Socrates about what is it to be alive and being conscious, this in a way sets the stage for things to come. In the first chapter On the Souls and Their Sizes we are made to think about presence of souls in different foods that we eat (he himself doesn’t partake mammalian meat). We non-chalantly eat a tomato, irritatingly squish a mosquito, but what happens when we eat higher life forms, like chicken, pigs and sheep? Do they have souls? Do all living beings have souls? If so, then does the soul of a human is greater than that of a cow (now here I must be careful, there are people in my country who judge the soul of a cow much much greater than that of a human being), of a pig, of a chicken, of a mosquito of a tomato?

Does a baby lamb have a soul that matters, or is the taste of lamb chops just too delicious to worry one’s head over that? 18

The suggestive answer is  given in a conciousness cone, in which we normal adult humans are at the top and atoms are the start of the cone. But then granted that we have a soul, are we born with a fully developed one? Here Hofstadter takes a developmental approach to the concept of the soul. The idea is that we are born with some essence of what appears to be soul, then gradually over the years it develops. The concept of soul here is used interchageably with “I”. The main take home point in this chapter is whatever this is, we do not get the fully developed version of it from birth. Rather it is a developmental process which takes place in the real world, shaped by experiences. The said developmental changes are in degree, rather than a black/white switch.

In the second chapter This Teethering Bulb of Dread and Dream we look at possible ways of studying the mechanisms of the brain which might potentially shed some light on the puzzle that we are after. In general the idea of studying the hardware of the brain seems to be set in agenda of many neurologists. But Hofstadter argues against this way of studying thinking.

Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities such as these would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraph lengths, and so forth. 26

Another analogy given is that of the heart. Just like heart is a pumping machine, brain is a thinking machine. If we only think heart as an aggregate of cells, we miss out on the bigger picture of what the cells do. The heart surgeons don’t think about heart cells but look at the larger structure. Similarly to study thinking the lower level of components may not be the correct level to study highly abstract phenomena such as concepts, analogies, consciousness, empathy etc. This is pointing towards thinking as an emergent phenomena, emerging from the interactions at lower levels which are composed of objects/entities which are not capable of thinking.

Hofstadter then takes philosopher John Searle to task for his views regarding impossibility of thinking arising from non-thinking entities. The analogy of a beer can to a neuron is taken apart. What is suggested by Searle in his thought experiments is equivalent to memory residing in a single neuron. But this certainly is not the case. We have to think of the brain as a multi-level system. But going too deep in these levels we would not get a comprehensible understanding of our thinking.

Was it some molecules inside my brain that made me reshelve it? Or was it some ideas in my brain? 31

Rather it is ideas that make more ideas.

Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to producein toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. Sperry as quoted on 31-32

Another analogy that is given is that of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mehcanics. Just as atoms interact in a gas at a micro-level to create gas laws which can be observed at a macro-level. The macro-level laws also makes it comprehensible to us, because of the sheer amount of information at mirco level that one would have to analyse to make sense. (Provided that we can in theory solve such a massive set of equations, not considering the quantum mechanical laws.) Similarly the point is made that for understanding a complex organ such as the brain, which contains billions of interacting neurons, we should not look at the hardware at the lowest level, but rather look for macro-level patterns.

Statistical mentalics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thinkodynamics. 34

The perception of the world that we get is from sensory inputs, language and culture. And it is at that level we operate, we do not seek atomic level explanations for the dropping of the atomic bomb. This simplification is part of our everyday explanation, and we choose the levels of description depending on the answers that we are seeking.

Drastic simplification is what allows us to reduce situations to their bare bones, to discover abstract essences, to put our fingers on what matters, to understand phenomena at amazingly high levels, to survive reliably in this world, and to formulate literature, art, music, and science. 35

The third chapter The Causal Potency of Patterns provides us with concrete metaphors to think about emergent phenomena and thinking at levels. The first of such metaphors is a chain of dominoes, which can be thought of as a computer program for carrying out a given computation. In this case finding checking if a number is prime: 641. Now a person watching the domino fall right upto 641 can presumably give two answers, the first one is that the domino before 641 did not fall, while other is 641 is a prime number. These two answers are many levels apart. The second example is of Hofstadter sitting a traffic jam, The reason why you are stuck in traffic, is because the car in front of you is not moving. On the other hand this does not tell you anything about  why the jam arose in the first place, which may be due to a large number of cars going home after a game or a natural disaster of some kind. The main idea is that we can have two (many?) levels of explanation each one looking at the system from a different level of detail, for example, the car ahead of you local,  the reasons for the jam global. As far as the causal analysis goes we can look at answers at different levels.

Deep understanding of causality sometimes requires the understanding of very large patterns and their abstract relationships and interactions, not just the understanding of microscopic objects interacting in microscopic time intervals. 41

Similar example is that of a combustion engine. The designers of the engine do not think about molecular level of interactions, the level that is relevant for them is the thermodynamic level of pressure, temeperature and volume. The properties of individual molecules like their locations, velocities is irrelevant in such a description, though the properties of the ensemble is.

This idea — that the bottom level, though 100 percentresponsible for what is happening, is nonetheless irrelevant to what happens — sounds almost paradoxical, and yet it is an everyday truism. 42

Another example that is given is of listening to music. Lets say you hear a piece of music, and you experience some emotions due to it. Now, consider there was a slight delay before playing started, the actual molecules which vibrated to get you the music, would be different than in the first case. Yet, you would experience the music in the same way even though the molecules that brought you that music were completely different.

The lower-level laws of their collisions played a role only in that they gave rise to predictable high-level events. But the positions, speeds, directions, even the chemical identity of the molecules – all of this was changeable, and the high-level events would have been the same. 42

Thus we can say that a lower level might be responsible for a higher level event and at the same time is irrelevant to the higher level.

 

The next metaphor we consider is that of careenium and simmbalism. (No points for guessing what the intended puns are here!) There are many witty puns throughout the book, and Hofstadter uses them very effectively to make his points. This Gedankenexperiment is referred to many times in the book. Simms (small interacting marbles) are very small marbles, which can crash into each other and bounce off the walls in a frictionless world. They are also magnetic so that if they hit each other with low velocity they can “stick” to each other and form clusters called simmballs. A simmball can be composed of millions of simms, and may loose or gain simms at its boundary. Thus we have tiny and agile simms, and huge and nearly immobile simmballs. All this bashing and boucing happens at frictionless pooltable, the careenium.

After setting this metaphorical system we add another complexiety that external events can affect the simmballs, thus we can have a record of history by reading the configurations of simmballs. Now a reductionist approach to this system would be that we really need to know only about nature of interaction of the simms, rest are just epi-phenomena, which can be explained by behavior of the simms. But such a view isnot helpful in many ways. One of the issues that is raised is that of enormous complexity raised by such approach will render it meaningless. But, whether we can even describe a phenomena in a truly fundamental way, just by using basic laws is itself questionable.

A interesting reading in similar line of though is by Anderson (Anderson, P. W. (1972). More is different. Science, 177(4047), 393-396). He gives examples from physical science which seemingly defy solutions or explanations on basis of the fundamental laws. He strongly argues against the reductionist hypothesis

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by .any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe, In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, theless relevance they seem to have to the
very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.

Anderson draws three inferences from this 1) Symmetry is of great importance to physics; symmetry the existence of different viewpoints from which the system appears the same. 2) the internal structure of a piece of matter need not be symmetrical even if the total state of it is.

I would challenge you to start from the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and predict the ammonia inversion and its easily observable properties without going through the stage of using the unsymmetrical pyramidal structure, even though no “state” ever has that structure.

3) the state of a really big system does not at all have to have the symmetry of the laws which govern it; in fact, it usually has less symmetry.

Starting with the fundamental laws and a computer, we would have to do two impossible things – solve a problem with infinitely many bodies, and then apply the result to a finite system-before we synthesized this behavior

Finally Anderson notes:

Synthesis is expected to be all but impossible analysis, on the other hand, may be not only possible but fruitful in all kinds of ways: Without an understanding
of the broken symmetry in superconductivity, for instance, Josephson would probably not have discovered his effect.

Going back to Hofstadter, he considers a higher level view of the Gedankenexperiment with simms, simmballs and careenium. To get a birds eye view of our  have to zoom out both space and time. The view that we will get is that of simmballs, simms would be to small and too fast for us to view at this level. In fast forward of time, the simmballs are no longer stationary, but rather are dynamic entities which change their shapes and positions due to interactions of simms (now invisible) at lower level. But this is not evident at this level, though the simms are responsible for changing the shape and position of simmballs, they are irrelevant as far as description of simmballs.

And so we finally have come to the crux of the matter: Which of these two views of the careenium is the truth? Or, to echo the key question posed by Roger Sperry, Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium? 49

The answer is that it all depends on which level you choose to focus on. The analogy can be made clear by thinking of how billions of interacting nuerons form patterns of thought, analogy, interacting ideas. Thus while trying to think about thinking we should let go of observing a single neuron, or the hardware of the brain itself, it will not lead us to any comprehensible description or explanation of how we think. Nuerons are though responsible for thinking they are irrelevant in the higher order of thinking.

 

 

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)

Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it
for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published
over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked
up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the
most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to
publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought
valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but
instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow
anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only
apply to things published in the future.  Everything up until now will have been
lost. 

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work
of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at
Google to read them?  Providing scientific articles to those at elite
universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's
outrageous and unacceptable. 

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights,
they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly
legal - there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can,
something that's already being done: we can fight back. 

Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you
have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while
the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not - indeed, morally, you
cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with
the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download
requests for friends. 

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have
been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information
locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. 

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called
stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral
equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't
immoral - it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to
let a friend make a copy. 

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they
operate require it - their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the
politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the
exclusive power to decide who can make copies. 

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light
and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to
this private theft of public culture. 

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share
them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to
the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to
download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need
to fight for Guerilla Open Access. 

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message
opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past.
Will you join us? 

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

via | Open Access Manifesto

Can Stars Be Seen in Daylight?

The constellations that we saw at night half a year ago are now overhead in the daytime. Six months later they will again adorn the night sky. The sunlit atmosphere of the Earth screens them from the eye because the air particles-disperse the sun-rays more than the rays emitted by the stars. (The observer located on the top of a high mountain, with the densest and dustiest layers of- the atmosphere below, would see the brighter stars even in daytime. For instance, from the top of Mt. Ararat (5 km. high), first-magnitude stars are clearly distinguished at 2 o’clock in the afternoon; the sky is seen as having a dark blue colour.)

The following simple experiment will help explain why the stars disappear in daylight. Punch a few holes in one of the sides of a cardboard box, taking care, however, to make them resemble a familiar constellation. Having done so, glue a sheet of white paper on the outside. Place a light inside the box and take it into a dark room; lit from the inside; the holes, representing stars in the   night sky, are clearly seen. But, switch on a light in the room without extinguishing the light in the box and, lo, the artificial stars on our sheet of paper vanish without trace: “daylight” has extinguished them.

One often reads of stars being seen even in daylight from the bottom of deep mines and wells, of tall chimney-stacks and so on. Recently, however, this viewpoint, which had the backing of eminent names, was put to test and found wanting.  As a matter of   fact, none of the men who wrote on this subject, whether the Aristotle of antiquity or 19th-century Herschel, had ever bothered to observe the stars in these conditions. They quoted the testimony of a third person. But the unwisdom of relying on the testimony of
“eye-witnesses,” say in this particular field, is emphasized by the; following example. An article in an American magazine described daylight visibility of stars from the. bottom of a well as a fable. This was hotly contested by a farmer who claimed that he had seen Capella: and Algol in daytime from the floor of a  20-metre high silo. But when his claim was checked it was found that on the latitude of his farm neither of the stars was at zenith at the given date and, consequently could not have been seen from
the bottom of the silo.

Theoretically, there is no reason why a mine or a well should help in daylight observation of stars. We have already mentioned that the stars are not seen in daytime because sunlight extinguishes them. This holds also for the eye of the observer at the bottom of a mine. All that is subtracted in this case- is the light from the sides. All the particles in the layer of air above the surface of the mine continue to give off light and, consequently, bar the stars to vision.

What is of importance here is that the walls of the well protect the; eye from the bright sunlight; this, however, merely facilitates observation of the bright planets, but not the stars. The reason why stars are seen through the telescope in daylight is not because they are seen from “the bottom of a tube,” as many think, but because the refraction of light, by the lens or its reflection in the mirrors detracts from the brilliancy of the part of the sky under observation, and at the same time enhances the brilliancy of the stars (seen as points of light). We can see first-magnitude and even second-magnitude stars in daytime through a 7 cm. telescope. What has been said, however, does not hold true for either wells, mines, or chimneys.

The bright planets, say, Venus, Jupiter or Mars, in opposition, present a totally different picture. They shine far more brilliantly than the stars, and for this reason, given favourable conditions, can be seen in daylight.

From Astronomy for Entertainment – Yakov Perelman Pg: 135-137

Available here.

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.

Debunking bad science

Debunking bad science should be constant obligation of the science community, even if it takes time away from serious research or seems to be a losing battle. One takes comfort from the fact there is no Gresham’s laws in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.

via Martin Gardner | Wikiquote.

We are stardust…

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

via Lawrence M. Krauss – Wikiquote.

A parable on…

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a far away country, there was a community that had a wonderful machine. The machine had been built by most inventive of their people … generation after generation of men and women toiling to construct its parts… experimenting with individual components until each was perfected… fitting them together until the whole mechanism ran smoothly. They had built its outer casing of burnished metal and on one side, they had attached a complex control panel. The name of the machine, KNOWLEDGE, was engraved on a plaque  set in the centre of the control panel.

The community used the machine in their efforts to understand the world and to solve all kinds of problems. But the leaders of the community were not satisfied. It was a competitive world… they wanted more problems solved and they wanted them solved faster.

The main limitation for the use of machine was the rate at which data could be prepared for input. Specialist machine operators called ‘predictors’, carried out this exacting and time consuming task… naturally the number of problems solved each year depended directly on the number and skill of the predictors.

The community leaders focussed on the problem of training predictors. The traditional method, whereby promising girls and boys were taken into long-term apprenticeship, was deemed too slow and too expensive. Surely, they reasoned, we can find more efficient approach. So saying,  they called the elders together and asked them to think about the matter.

After a few months, the elders reported that they had devised an approach that showed promise. In summary, they suggested that the machine be disassembled. Then each component could be studied and understood with ease… the operation of machine would become an open book to all who cared to look.

Their plan was greeted with enthusiasm. So, the burnished covers were pulled off, and the major mechanisms of the machine fell out… they had plaques with labels like HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY and PHYSICS and MATHEMATICS. These mechanisms were pulled apart in their turn… of course, care was taken to keep all the pieces in separate piles. Eventually, the technicians had reduced the machine to little heaps of metal plates and rods and nuts and bolts and springs and gear wheels. Each heap was put in a box, carefully labelled with the name of the mechanism whose part it contained, and the boxes were lined up for the community to inspect.

The members of the community were delighted. Their leaders were ecstatic. They ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the quality of components, the obvious skill that had gone in their construction, the beauty of designs. Here, displayed for all, were the inner workings of KNOWLEDGE.

In his exuberance, one man plunged his hand into a box and scooped up a handful of tiny, jewel-like  gear wheels and springs. He held them out to his daughter and glancing, at the label on the box, said:

“Look, my child! Look! Mathematics! ”

From: Turtle Speaks Mathematics by Barry Newell

You can get the book (and another nice little book Turtle Confusion) here.

 

In Denial of Fukushima

The arrogance and jingoism exhibited by the Nuclear lobby in India is well known. Even in face of disaster
Fukushima, the people in DAE remain adamant that there is no option to Nuclear Energy and also that it is safe from accidents, and even if an accidents happens at all they will be ready to control. The optimism that they have regarding issues of safety in case of radioactive materials and nuclear reactors is something a person with a good understanding of science would not share. Too much reliance on the idea that “nothing can go wrong” is what will lead to the horrible consequences of not understanding the Golem. And the statements by the DAE junta does exactly this. The very idea that the reactors are completely safe; are different than what was present in Japan, we can contain the damage, are what are needed to be questioned.

A nice article in Tehelka makes the point more clearer. Here are some lines from the same:

Fukushima also demonstrated unambiguously that communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident, a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the local populations in Koodankulam and Jaitapur. At the other end of the spectrum was the reaction of the people associated with nuclear establishments, who vociferously argued that it was essential to persist with nuclear power — not surprising, since it conforms to their self-interest.

Whatever the experts at DAE maybe saying, the images that the people at large are seeing are that of desolate landscapes, ruined buildings, poisoned farmlands, and inaccessible homes. The very idea that Nuclear Power can solve all the issue of power in India is questionable. Lets say even if we construct 10 such more plants, where will be the power used? Who will get the priority over the power? The villages near which the power plants are present, or the metro cities whose demands for power and its abuse are ever increasing. Just think about how many electrical appliances  you have, and how many you could do without?

On 15 March 2011, NPCIL Chairman SK Jain trivialised what was going on in Japan saying, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Fukushima… It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme… (that) the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.” Such denial would be laughable but when the person thus opining is in charge of India’s power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing.

In September 2011, for example, the DAE Secretary claimed: “We are prepared to handle an event like Fukushima.” This assertion is belied by the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who testified to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2010 that it was “nowhere (near) meeting an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies”.

On more than one occasion, the DAE Secretary has made assertions that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero. In November 2011, for example, he stated that the probability was “one in infinity”. The public image sought to be created is one of great confidence in safety. Is such confidence justified?

The first point to note is that the very statement that the likelihood of an accident is zero is scientifically untenable; every nuclear reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a catastrophic failure.

A second question: is the confidence on the part of officials about the zero probability of accidents good for safety? This is not a question about technology but about organisations. … Safety scholar James Reason once noted: “If an organisation is convinced that it has achieved a safe culture, it almost certainly has not.” The DAE and its attendant institutions appear to be convinced not just that they have a safe culture, but that the hazardous technologies they operate are incapable of undergoing accidents. This is not conducive to safety.

What the Koodankulam protest tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk. They deserve to be listened to, not dismissed as stooges of foreign funding. That is an insult to the intellects and minds of millions of people and to democracy itself.

The Golem at Large

Recently I completed reading of the second book in the Golem series, the complete being The Golem at Large: What you should know about technology by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. The book discusses cases from technology field in which there is a ‘regress’, in even expert people are not able to decide objectively what to make out of results of experiment, which at first sight seem to be so objective.

Some of the examples that they choose are well known, some are not. For example the much famed demonstration by Richard Feynman on O-Rings is brought out from its almost cult status. The demonstration by Feynman when looked at with all the background seems to be very naive. Similarly many other examples de-mythify different examples from different technologies.

Some of the quotes that I have liked are as under.
+ 4 It would, of course, be foolish to suggest that technology and
science are identical. Typically, technologies are more directly
linked to the worlds of political and military power and business
influence than are sciences.

+ 6 But disputes are representative and illustrative of the roots of
knowledge; they show us knowledge in the making.

+ 10 It would be wrong to draw any conclusions for science and
technology in general from wartime statements; wartime claims
about the success of the missile reflect the demands of war rather
than the demands of truth.

+ 28 As always, if only we could fight the last war again we would
do it so much better.

+ 28 Just as military men dream of fighting a war in which there is
never any shortage of information or supplies, while the enemy
always does the expected, so experts have their dreams of
scientific measurement in which signal is signal and noise follows
the model given in the statistical textbooks. As the generals
dream of man- oeuvres, so the experts dream of the mythical model
of science.

+ 28 Even when we have unlimited access to laboratory conditions, the
process of measurement does not fit the dream; that was the point
of our earlier book ¡V the first volume of the Golem series.

+ 32 Skimp, save and cut corners, give too much decision-making
power to reckless managers and uncaring bureaucrats, ignore the
pleas of your best scientists and engineers, and you will be
punished.

+ 38 Whether two things are similar or different, Wittgenstein
noted, always involves a human judgement.

+ 40 The `correct’ outcome can only be achieved if the experiments or
tests in question have been performed competently, but a competent
experiment can only be judged by its outcome.

+ 62 The treatment of the controversial aspects must be different to
the uncontroversial aspects. The same is true of what we loosely
refer to as experiments: one does not do experiments on the
uncontroversial, one engages in demonstrations.

+ 64 In an experiment, that would be cheating, but in a display, no
one would complain. A demonstration lies somewhere in the middle
of this scale. Classroom demonstrations, the first bits of science
we see, are a good case. Teachers often know that this or that
`experiment’ will only work if the conditions are `just so’, but
this information is not vouchsafed to the students.

+ 64 A demonstration or display is something that is properly set
before the lay public precisely because its appearance is meant
to convey an unambiguous message to the senses, the message that
we are told to take from it. But the significance of an experiment
can be assessed only be experts.

+ 71 Anything seen on television is controlled by the lens, the
director, the editor and the commentators. It is they who control
the conclusions that seem to follow from the `direct evidence of
the senses’.

+ 74 The public were not served well, not because they necessarily
drew false conclusions, but because they did not have access to
evidence needed to draw conclusions with the proper degree of
provisionality. There is no short cut through the contested
terrain which the golem must negotiate.

+ 77 A vast industry supported by national governments makes sure it
understands how oil is found, where it is found and who has the
rights to find it.

+ 82 In some ways it is easier to delve into the first few
nanoseconds of the universe than to reconstruct something buried
deep in the core of the earth.

+ 86 This is the `experimenter’s regress’. If you believe that
microbiological activity exists at great depths then this is
evidence that a competently performed experiment has been carried
out. If you believe that microbiological activity is impossible or
extremely unlikely then the evidence of biological activity is
evidence for doubting the experiment. Experiment alone cannot
settle the matter.

+ 91 In short, Gold’s non-biological theory and its assessment are
intertwined with the politics and commerce of oil
exploration. There is no neutral place where a `pure’ assessment
of the validity of his claims can be made.

+ 96 With several hundred equations to play with, this is an area
where `theory’ and `guesswork’ are not as far apart as
conventional ideas about science would encourage us to think.

+ 102 I think there are really two different approaches. One is to
say that this is a branch of science and that everything must be
based on objective criteria which people can understand. The other
is to say that is just too inflexible, and that there’s something
called judgement – intuition if you like – which has its place in
the sciences and that it’s the people who are intuitive who are
successful.

+ 104 It is also possible to argue that modellers who did not suffer from big
mistakes were lucky while some others were unlucky to have been wrong.

+ 106 Even if you believe that large errors are bound to prove you
wrong, you may still argue about the meaning of `large’ and you
may still think that the difference between accuracy and
inaccuracy was not clever economics but luck. Finally, you may
always say that the economy changed radically.

+ 106 … it was not the model but the economy that was wrong.

+ 107 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.

+ 107 Oh absolutely, that’s why it’s absolutely pointless to publish
these forecast error bands because they are extremely
large. . . . I’m all for publishing full and frank statements but
you see the difficulty [with] these standards errors is that
they’re huge.

+ … In fact, we could have done this at the National Institute in
the mid 70s, but we suppressed it on the grounds that the standard
errors were so large, that it would have been difficult for
non-specialists, you know people using the models, using the
forecasts, to appreciate. It would have discredited them.

+ 108 Science is often used as a way of avoiding responsibility;
some kinds of fascism can be seen as the substitution of
calculation for moral responsibility.

+ 110 That is, it selected those who were `. . . willing to
subordinate their education to their careers’.

+ 111 The economists who build the models deserve credibility, but
their models do not; one should not use the same criteria to judge
expert advice as one uses to judge the coherence of a model.

+ 124 Flipping to and fro between science being all about certainty
and science being a political conspiracy is an undesirable state
of affairs.

+ 149 In effect, a group of lay people had managed to reframe the
scientific conduct of clinical research: they changed the way it
was conceived and practised.

+ 151 Feynman gives the impression that doubts can always be simply
resolved by a scientist who is smart enough.

+ 151 The danger is always that enchantment is the precursor of
disenchantment.

+ 153 Golem science and technology is a body of expertise, and
expertise must be respected. But we should not give unconditional
respect before we understand just what the expertise comprises and
whether it is relevant. To give unconditional respect is to make
science and technology a fetish.

How science should be taught

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

Some thing from this book needs no title…

I love the artist or scholar whose activity is like the bee
pursuing the delicious nectar of the flowers. The bee has no
mind to become a renowned authority on which flowers
contain the best nectar; the bee simply loves nectar. In all
probability, the bee, through his actual experience will soon
have a fantastic knowledge of the flower geography of his
neighborhood-as good perhaps as any human scholar who
“studies” botany. And I say the bee really knows the flower
much better than the botanist. The botanist merely knows
about the flower; the bee knows the flower directly. The more
analytically minded reader might well ask, at this point, just
what I mean by “knowing about something” versus “knowing it
directly.” I wish I could answer him! The distinction is so
difficult to explain rationally, and yet it is of such vital
importance.

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?

The 5 Φ’s of Life

Life as I see it, has five essential `F’s’. Many people may not agree to them, but then this is my blog, so I will tell, whether you like it or not. I will give my reasons for each one, why it is esential according to me. You may agree, or disagree, or give no opinion, it does not matter. Since this blog is more like a personal diary, which I will not link to anybody, I think it is safe to write things here, which I would not like to be in public.

[But then am I not contradicting myself, when I am putting my personal thoughts in a public place?]

So the five F’s

  • Phood: Food is essential for our survival, this represents a living organisms most basic needs. This is what distinguishes us from non-living matter. But the food just should not be for sustenance. It should also be enjoyed. What is the point in eating something that you don’t like? No I don’t mean that we get to eat everything that we like, [I am definitely not suggesting that if you don’t have breads then you should eat cakes], but with whatever we have to eat, we should be enjoying it. If you make the food [not like the plants] but in the more human sense of the world. When you “make” food you get joy of creating something wonderful, if you do not then I am sorry for you. Also the cook should have the complete freedom to do with the food .
  • Philosophy: This is what distinguishes us from the other living beings, we have to have a philosophy of our own, or at least one that is taken from others. But what is essentially needed is to critically look at the aspects of life.
  • Phuck: Well what to say about this? I guess you understand my feelings!
  • Physics: Physics according to some people is the pinnacle of our achievement. Since I am a physicist by training, I have included physics here. Physics has given me a skeptical attitude towards things in life. Though this is not the only path which will lead you here nor that everyone who is a physicist by training will go along this path, but this was my path, hence I list is here.
  • Photography: I have included photography for two reasons.[I am still an amateur [literally and figuratively], as I have not been paid for anything that I have done so far.] One is that photography enables you to store moments, that you have for an extended period of time, and that too in a form that you can share with other people. The other reason is about the art of photography itself. When you are behind a camera, you start to see things differently, from differently perspectives and angles. Is this what not a skeptic needs? Photography in a way provides me with practical tools of implementing many philosophical ideas which would otherwise remain abstract.

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….