Weekly Roundup 103

It is quite incredible to think about how much physics has developed in the last 300 years. Although we think of the ancient Greeks as being pretty competent the truth is they weren’t really that good on the science front. It was the work of Issac Newton and his contemporaries that brought us the idea of forces and momentum. Of course now a days these are very basic concepts but were revolutionary when Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) was published. The very idea of using such rigorous mathematics to describe mechanical systems such as the motion of the planets was unheard of but by the end of the 1700s there was no doubt that force and momentum were inherent aspects of motion. Now Isaac Newton loved to make things difficult for everyone around him (anyone who has tried to use his calculus notation over Leibniz’s will know that) and so his seminal work was published in Latin. This meant that someone had to translate it. In France, this task fell to an Émilie du Châtelet (whose birthday is coincidentally today in 1706) , a woman who, thanks to her family being a member of the lower nobility, had managed to achieve a great standard of education to supplement her brilliance. Historically she is more remembered for being the partner of Voltaire, but her translation was truly her most brilliant work (from my possibly biased perspective). Not only did it perform the necessary task of opening the literature to the French scientific community, her commentary that accompanied the translated Principa was exemplary. In it Émilie derives the concept of the conservation of energy, an idea that had not been considered before. It was only a few years prior that she herself had proved that kinetic energy was proportional to objects velocity squared. Before her work, energy was thought to be synonymous with momentum and as such no new conservation for it had been considered. Unfortunately (or perhaps luckily) she had only just finished her translation before she died 1749.

Just an interesting tale to tell considering it is her birthday. Whenever you feel the need to say that “energy cannot be created of destroyed” perhaps you’ll remember this. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

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Weekly Roundup 102

Over a week ago now I was just glancing at some of the titles of paper published in Nature when this one caught my eye. It’s a paper about how the feeding territories of the ayu fish change based on population. I’m not really going to be discussing that paper, it just triggered my memory back to the experiments of John Calhoun and his paper Population Density and Social Pathology which can be thankfully read due to the work of the National Centre for Biotechnology Information. This second paper is basically letting a population of rats grow in a contained area and watching how their behaviour changes eventually leading to self destruction. Of course, Calhoun then went on to predict a similar future for humanity as we began living more congested lives within cities, competing for scarcer resources.

I suppose my only real view on this is that it’s just ridiculous. I mean, people make jokes about social sciences all the time and it’s this kind of result that doesn’t help. There is no way to properly simulate the conditions to convincingly imitate the human condition within the rats. Rats can’t entertain themselves, I’m half convinced their erratic and harmful behaviour was more the result of boredom than anything else, but this is simply my view. Calhoun had his own view, so did the sensationalist newspapers that wrote about it and if you read the study you might come to your own conclusion.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 101

In way this weekly roundup can be seen as a lead on from Weekly Roundup 99 which came out two weeks ago. I’d really recommend reading it, I think roundup 99 is one of my favourite so far. Anyway, we left with the statement from Karl Popper: a scientific theory must be disprovable. This is why I consider it perfectly reasonable to say that string theory is not a scientific theory at all. There is no test in which string theory can be reliably proved wrong, and so it can never really be certified as true.

I’d like to present another requirement for a scientific theory, although I don’t have a prestigious philosopher backing me up this time: a scientific theory must be predictive. This is property is closely related to falsifiability and originally I was going to use the word “useful” instead of “predictive” and it’s hopefully clear why. If a scientific theory can only explain in hindsight then it is completely useless. For instance, you could go through every movie that has ever been released in all of cinema history and create a list of properties that a film must have so that will not lose money at the box office. For instance you might say, “look, no action film which cost over $130 million with an Academy Award winning star as the lead has ever lost money, therefore that’s all you need to do to make a film that doesn’t flop.” But this theory has no predictive capability, it may be a good guideline but really what you’ve done is set categories so that all previous films that fall in these categories haven’t lost money, but future films very well could.

This is also, in a way, synonymous with repeatability. If you why something happens this time, but explanation fails next time, then it isn’t really an explanation. Hopefully this is at least somewhat clear, until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 100

And so here it is, 700 days later. The one hundredth weekly roundup. I suppose this quite an incredible moment. So I have decided to spend a good couple of hours rereading previous weekly roundups and the posts they mention to see how things have changed, and they certainly have. My quality has certainly improved. I was quite out of practice at writing or typing anything when I began but hopefully after two years I’m back at at least a competent level. Also I’ve become a bit less repetitive. I can already see my repeated word choice coming into play when scanning just a few of my original posts. And of course, probably the most simple difference to implement but quite embarrassing that I wasn’t doing it from the start is linking straight to the paper I was reading to write the post. Considering the amount of “evidence” laymen gather for their ridiculous political arguments from science blogs like this (I use the term science blog in the most derogatory way) making sure every post has a link straight to the scientific literature prevents the horrible circular evidence loops that you see come into play when internet commentators choose to try to back up their arguments in a debate. Ultimately though the main difference is actually length of posts that I now write. When I started the average length of a post was just 150 words, now I very rarely write a post below 400 words. I can distinctly remember a few months ago trying to set a 300 word minimum so I suppose over time these posts will just keep getting longer and longer, although trends don’t last forever. Actually writing that last sentence has reminded me of quite a silly Nature news article, which a quick Google search has found me: here. A classic example of extrapolating first order terms, such as the rate of improvement, while not considering the second order, how the rate itself will change. It’s not that the article particularly agrees with the argument made, just that the argument is so asinine it should never even need rebuking. Anyway, constant improvement is something we should all strive for. Excellence is after all, not an act, but a habit.

See you all tomorrow, until then, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 99

Sir Karl Popper was a philosopher, described by some as the greatest scientific philosopher of the twentieth century (but only by the people who agree with him obviously). His ultimate idea was that scientific knowledge is a form of evolution, not in that good ideas are found and stuck with, but that bad ideas fail and are killed off. According to Popper proving something to be absolutely true is impossible. You can only prove something true to the accuracy of the equipment your using, but you can prove things are false with much more certainty. This leads directly into what makes a scientific theory. The theory has to be falsifiable, not in that it has to be false, just that there has to be a way to prove it’s false which may or may not succeed.

Popper’s thoughts arrived at the difference between psychologists like Freud or Adler compared to Einstein. The famous joke is that Freud could state that a person became antisocial because they weren’t hugged as a child, yet presented with an antisocial person who was hugged he could argue that that child was hugged too much. His theories could never be wrong. Einstein, however, created his theory of general relativity and predicted that if it was true a certain star could be seen by a solar eclipse, when in fact that star existed out of direct sight due to gravity distorting light’s path. If Eddington has not seen that star in the predicted place, Einstein would have been proven wrong. Of course he wasn’t but that’s not important. People who are willing to be proven wrong and make a theory which inherently contains a method to do so, are true scientists. Everyone else, they’re just fable weavers creating the “primitve myths” as Popper described them.

So if you ever want to create theory, always try and prove it wrong first. Until tommorow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 98

Today is remembrance Sunday, a day in which we remember the sacrifices soldiers made during the first and second world wars. When it comes to scientists from that time some names spring to mind. Of course Albert Einstein fleeing Germany is a major character, as well as all the scientists who worked on the Manhattan project or perhaps Arthur Eddington who made observations to prove relativity just after the first world war’s end. But really the scientist that I don’t think can be untangled from the wars, not completely, is Fritz Haber.

Haber was undeniably a brilliant chemist, born in Prussia, an area now under the control of Poland, it was inevitable that he would end up in Germany. He developed the Haber process which allows for the industrial production of ammonia. This was necessary for Germany to produce explosives due to the allies (mostly Britain) using their naval might to blockade the transport of saltpetre. Perhaps if his work had ended there he would have not been so reviled. But his next piece of work was something more than just explosive production. He pioneered the use of chemicals, specifically chlorine, as a weapon, having it released when the wind was blowing towards enemy lines. Of course the effects were devastating for any civilians, friends or enemies caught in the way of the cloud. A quote often associated with him is “death is death, no matter how it is inflicted.” Those who had their lungs shredded by chemicals would almost certainly disagree. His wife, considered to be an incredible chemist herself, also disagreed with his actions. She shot herself in 1915. Perhaps this could have been a message to Haber, but he certainly didn’t listen. He kept on working past Germany’s defeat and in the 1920s scientists under his command invented the cyanide based pesticide Zyklon A. This chemical was of course used later by Germany as the method of industrial slaughter in the Holocaust.

Ironic in the end that Haber, such an extreme nationalist, was long gone at this point, forced to flee Germany in 1933 being a Jewish man. He died only a year later being in poor health. Whether you wish to assign him the deaths on the battlefield he ordered as commander, all deaths by German chlorine in the war, or perhaps a part of the Holocaust itself, there is something that needs to be remembered. His greatest action, the one that won the Nobel prize, was that of the Haber process to produce ammonia. The reader can choose to believe whether a Malthusian disaster was imminent or not but ultimately the result is the same. Without the production of ammonia for fertiliser there is no way the world could support a population of 7 billion people. It is said that two fifths of everyone alive owes their food to the Haber process and therefore the man who created it.

Something to think about this remembrance day.

Until tommorow, goodnight

Weekly Roundup 97

Remember, remember, the 5th of November. It’s become an interesting distortion in recent years to see Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot as a whole in a more positive light. Rather than a bunch of fanatics attempting to kill their king so he could be replaced with one from their religious sect, they are now seen as more revolutionary in nature. No doubt an effect of the graphic novel V for Vendetta and the accompanying film. But how does this relate to physics in any way? Well it’s an interesting feature in history that during great social strife, such as revolutions, scientists seem to always get the worst end of it. Joseph-Louis de Lagrange (a well known name amongst many addled university students) commented on the execution of Antoine Lavoisier during the French revolution “it has cost them but a moment to cut off that head; but a hundred years will not be sufficient to produce another like it.” It should probably be noted that Lavoisier was not executed for being a scientist, but a nobleman (being accused of defrauding the state), although of course back then there weren’t many commoner scientists running around. Another poignant example would be the action of the Khmer Rouge. All those deemed too intellectual, even if the only offence was wearing glasses, were executed in one of the worst genocides in history.

Whenever turmoil arises from whatever the source, people will always get hurt. I suppose we all should feel lucky that it isn’t us who has to make the decision about when violence is necessary or not. We just have to hope we’re not on the receiving end of it.

Until tomorrow, goodnight, and remember.