What Has Science Done?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The need for proofreading

As is the habit when an individual begins a blog, their writing is particularly atrocious. My own postings have been a clear example of this phenomena. Hopefully I will put more effort into checking out what I write before I post it. One part of me says that since no one reads this blog, there is no reason to care. This obviousman post is due to the fact of getting A. Pais first name wrong (its Abraham) in my post about Einstein and Relativity Theory. The requirement to make reasonable sentences will draw out the length between posts, but as I said about, since no one reads this, it really should not matter all that much.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Let the guessing game...continue

With recent posts, here and here, about how the Intelligent Design movement is gaining steam and "evolution is bankrupt," I cannot help but wonder who these mysterious scientists are. Well, some have already gone over this and playing the game over and over has its limits. So let me be the first one to ask AGAIN, who are these renowned scientists that can only transmit their disdain for Evolutionary Biology via Bill Dembski. Please, oh purveyor of all wisdom, tell us. I would love, personally to chat with these individuals, and it might make ID seem more than just a cheap intellectual version of three-card monty.

I also would like to add myself to the list of snarky commenters who are not allowed to post anymore on Dembski's website. Eh, I am just small fry. But I do smile, having been annoying and succinct enough to merit removal of my last post and the deletion of my account. Maybe I am just tired and cranky. Maybe.

The American Perspective

I would just like to say that Science, however much Americans hate this fact, is NOT a democratic institution. Everyone will get their chance to speak, but because you believe something doesn't mean its right or that we should even care. If one needs further clarification please go read Steven Dutch's comments on being an "expert" here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Back to the Primary Sources

For the sake of my health I really shouldn't read Dembski's website, especially its comment section. Oh well, we all have to have our bad habits. Since I am used to seeing by now the ridiculous tripe the Intelligent Design trots out for everyone to see, comments by Charlie Townes via Dembski are none too exciting, since because the nobelist's comments on science and religion have already been given the once over before.

I couldn't help though but laugh as perennial commenter DaveScot attempted to explain here and here some hitherto unknown aspects of Darwin's work. I had just gone over the development of Darwin's thought in a post just a few days ago. I must recommend On Evolution for anyone wanting to get some good insight into Darwin's writings. Darwin, if you read his notebooks, cannot stand Lamarck's theory and regularly states so. There are Lamarckian characteristics like his discussions of early man and the notion that environmental precedes morphological change. But goodness, Darwin was no Lamarckian, made pains to make that clear, and I sure doubt any of the neo-Lamarckians of the period would take to kindly to adding Darwin to their camp.

Just remember, if your having trouble handling complicated concepts in Ernst Mayr's work, I know I did, I would recommend e-mailing a biology professor from a nearby college or university. Throwing books across the room in frustration is just a childish temper tantrum and we must all remember to treat our books with care and respect.

Oh and as a reminder, in biology they don't argue over Darwin's theory anymore but about the Modern Synthesis of which certain Darwinian mechanisms are integral. For as much as you wish, it ain't going any.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Questions about an Annus Mirabilis

Having a propensity to ask history laden questions in physics classes often gets me to go digging in the science library for an answer, when I should be doing problem sets. One problem that has been recently vexing me is an idea that Einstein's work in quantum theory helped pave the way for relativity theory. This may look at first glance as if I had pulled this out of the air, particular with the current problem in theoretical physics of reconciling the underlying assumptions of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. After having Alexandre Pais, a physicist and biographer, recommend as a potential source, I came upon an article for the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's birth in the Reviews of Modern Physics (Vol.51 863-914). Reading it set my mind further wondering if there was a connection which Einstein would have most vehemently denied, since he kept discussions of quantum theory and of relativity separate from each other.

So in part this posting is to be both a recount of what I have read so far on the subject, that is the genesis of relativity theory, as well as to petition any knowledgeable physicists/historians out there who could help me out in answering this conundrum.

I have taken over the past year two courses in intermediate electrodynamics, which I know is a drop in the bucket compared to some, but I am working with what I've got. At the end of the year, we naturally went over Special Relativity with discussions of Lorentz transforms of E&M fields and the ease of using four vectors. David Griffiths' text, Introduction to Electrodynamics, was our textbook for the two classes. I also, because I like being interdisciplinary got to write a paper on the reception of Special Relativity in the United States, which forced me to do some background reading into how the came about in the first place. Three things struck me in the course of my study, one: that few historical commentators ever commented on the importance of Faraday's Law and the Flux Rule when talking about the genesis of SR, two: that Einstein through his reasoning was able to discard so easily the concept of a luminiferous ether as superfluous when so many of his contemporaries were unable to, and three: that a discussion of synchronized clocks which is crucial for relativity resembles so much a lesson in ballistics.

The first is not particularly relevant to this discussion, more for a need to vent about the obsession historians particularly in the US have with the Michelson Morley interferometer experiments, and in the course missing a whole lot more crucial material. Oh and this is not to say Einstein didn't know about the experiment, for one of Lorentz's 1895 papers was called "The Michelson interferometer experiment," so whether Einstein read the original paper I think is inconsequential. The two other points are important, though one may chalk them up to a mere lack of experience with this material. The ether was a particulate substance that permeated all the universe and whose oscillations (in whatever manner that was) were electric and magnetic field oscillations. And when Maxwell and his followers described light as an electromagnetic wave, the already vaguely defined ether now gained another phenomena to its historical grab bag. In order to keep from drawing this out too far, I will cut straight to the chase and say I believe that Einstein's work on quanta was further corroboration for his dismissal of the ether hypothesis in special relativity, and that an acceptance of the quantum hypothesis may have facilitated an exceptance of special relativity. This is a working hypothesis and obviously needs a bit more fleshing out, but I think it is a worthwhile line of inquiry.

The Pais article I mentioned before is so interesting (well the whole thing is) because a small section is devoted to Relativity and Quantum Theory. Pais brings up a number of obvious areas to mention quantum or relativity in the discussions of the other theory, but Einstein does not.

In his first relativity paper (1905c) Einstein noted: "It is remarkable that the energy and frequency of a light complex vary with the state of motion of the observer according to the same law." Here was an obvious opportunity to refer to the relation E = hv of his paper on light-quanta, finished a few months earlier . But Einstein did not do that. Also in the September paper (1905d) he referred to radiation but not light-quanta. In his 1909 address to Salzburg (1909a) Einstein discussed his ideas both on relativity theory and on quantum theory but kept these two areas well separated. As we have seen, in his 1917 paper (1917a) Einstein ascribed to light-quanta an energy E = hv and a momentum p = hv / c. This paper concludes with the following remark. "Energy and momentum are most intimately related; therefore a theory can only then be considered justified if it has been shown that according to it, the momentum transferred by radiation to matter leads to motions as required by thermodynamics." Why is only thermodynamics mentioned; why not also relativity?.

None of this is proof of the matter, but it should raise doubts about how much Einstein was able to keep the two theories separate in his own head despite his public claims to the contrary. Pais proposes that "Einstein kept the quantum theory apart from relativity theory is that he considered the former to be provisional (as he said (1912d) already in 1911) while, on the other hand, relativity to him was revealed truth." I would love to get some feedback on this peculiar topic, which though doesn't seem to have possibility of resolving problems in physics, does shine a new light on an impressive achievement of human intellect.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Origin of the Origin of Species

How did Charles Darwin come to formulate his theory of biological evolution by natural selection? The Origin was published in 1859, and the laws of Mendelian genetics would only rediscovered at the turn of the last century, and it would be another fifty years till Watson and Crick discussed in detail the structure of the molecule of inheritance. The story is important not only of importance for historians of science but also as a pedagogical tool in biology classes.

Fossils were being uncovered at an ever increasing rate throughout the 19th century, with even U.S. president Thomas Jefferson using the East Room to store his bone collection from Big Bone Lick. These dead animals often slightly resembled living species found on other continents like the elephants and sloths, but some which became known as dinosaurs to their discoverers were like nothing they had ever seen before. The problem was of how to fit these dead animals only known to exist because of their bones into the contemporary view of natural history. A discussion of natural history, unlike natural philosophy (physics, astronomy, chemistry) had not shed its connection to theology at this time. One widely held theory of geology was that of catastrophism which stated that changes to the Earth were due to global occurrences like a flood which do not occur with an observed regularity. Though not an explicit recitation of the story of Noah, this theory would mesh well with a Christian view of God changing the Earth with water or fire from heaven. Then to explain the fossils found in various layers of sediment, natural historians proposed that these catastrophes occurred numerous times throughout history wiping out all life on the planet, and God would then create new life again in a manner like that described in Genesis 1.

So sticking with the current theme of geology, we move onto Sir Charles Lyell whose work developing the theory of uniformitarianism crucial to the Origin's development. Uniformitarianism is a theory which states that changes in the surface of the Earth can be attributed to slow-acting observable processes like that of erosion. In order for erosion to create something as large as say, the Grand Canyon, it would require an enormous amount of time. Efforts to calculate the age of the Earth in the 19th century involved studies of salting of oceans, the condensation of gas nebula into stars, and the cooling of molten metal. A commonly stated figure was 100 million years, which Huxley decried as too small, though greater precision in age calculation was only brought on by the discovery of radioactivity and atomic isotopes. But back to our supposed main character Charles Darwin. He was a very close friend of the elder Lyell and an active proponent of uniformitarianism himself. He took a copy of Lyell's masterwork, The Principles of Geology with him on the HMS Beagle and his surviving 1837 copy is heavily annotated.

For the biology portion of this history, we have start with the Swedish ecologists Carl Linnaeus who developed the system of organizing species by their external and internal characteristics (taxonomy). Taxonomy can be a contentious enterprise, as anyone whose opened a few biology texts will note, since views of what phylum or family a particular species belongs in varies among scientists even today. Jean Baptiste Lamarck, a French biologist, created a taxonomy based on a line of increasing complexity with humans, as one could expect, being at the pinnacle. Lamarck's theory of evolution was that animals gained new forms by the inheritance of acquired traits, and that each successive generation would further develop along the line. He did not believe in extinction, but that evolution produces ongoing spontaneous generation of new species. Darwin calls Lamarck's hypotheses absurd quite regularly in his notebooks with regard to both extinction and taxonomy. From Darwin we get the familiar branching tree model, but more will be said on this in a minute.

In 1830, at the age of 21 Darwin goes off on the HMS Beagle, a survey vessel to study the geology, fauna, and flora of South America. He writes about the importance of Lyell's geology while studying layers of sediment in Patagonia and how earthquakes can raise land. The book about his trip, The Voyages of the Beagle became a best seller in England documents the discovery of extinct species of gaunaco and armadillo buried in the ground in the same area as contemporary species. The questioned asked was, are these animals at all related? From uniformitarianism, Darwin knew that the Patagonia, the Andes, and the Galapagos were not always as they were when he saw them. So if these species were related, it is another jump to speculate how if possible could the changes in the habitat create new species. The final piece in the puzzle of Darwin's though comes from an unlikely source, political economist Thomas Malthus, whose "Essay on Population" produced a eureka moment for Darwin as well as Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin artfully describes the importance of population pressure and the struggle for limited resources in the 1845 republication of the Voyages, particularly in his description of the variety of different finches found in the Galapagos Islands. The finches he described were all the descendent of a single ancestor from South America, not the product of special creation, and the variety they displayed were due to available food supply on each island, which would make certain beaks more preferable then others. Those who ate more, were healthier, more apt to survive to produce offspring who were themselves healthy.

Charles Darwin had his theory of evolution by natural selection in his head by 1838, but only published The Origin of Species, at the request of Lyell in 1859, almost thirty years after he had left to tour South America. In this age of publish as fast as you can, one right asks why thirty years of mulling the problem. Darwin, plain and simple was obsessive about his theory, wanting to make it as solid as he could with mounds of evidence like that of his studies in orchids and barnacles. Understanding how controversial it would be in his own time, he wanted to make it irrefutable, and the comments in the Origin follow from his inability to fit every anomaly into his theory upon its 1859 publication. He was working on his Big Species Book, when the writings of Wallace compelled him to publish his theory, so without external motivators he may have waited even longer to publish.

My apologies for making this entry drone on forever, but few things in history are ever able to be squeezed sensibly into 100 words, and many historians just have a gift to gab. I also hope in a latter entry to go over all those contemporaneous arguments used against Darwin that are often thrown about as an aside by creationists to contend that evolution has always been controversial. Not only do we need better teaching of science in this country, but better history curricula as well. Bleh!

Inspiration and Procrastination

Anyone having gone through college knows how problematic both of these things can be, especially when intertwined, and for an egg-head in training like myself, I start a blog to comment on metascience studies. I cannot say that I am filling a necessary niche in the blogosphere, but hey this is my little corner of the web and I will waste it the way I want.

And who do I blame for distracting me from writing papers about the comparative reception of Freudian psychoanalysis and the various problems with the concept of scientific revolutions? Creationists! Yes rather then withering my life away playing hours of Everquest I spend my waking hours scanning the Thumb and laughing at silly IDers. For personal experience, I happen to be at a talk with physics nobelist and eccentric fellow, Prof. Robert Laughlin right around the time well-known grandstander Bill Dempsey cared to quote his new book, in a way Prof. Laughlin was none too happy about. I understand that Laughlin knows his stuff when it comes to condensed matter physics, but as commented elsewhere, he seems to be a bit out of realm when commenting on epistemology and biology.

This past semester I found myself in a tiff with some conservative Catholics on campus regarding Evolution and Faith, and yes more eminent posters then I have beaten this subject to death, but it was my first time seeing it up close. With no discussion of the actual science, lots of comments on the dangers of materialism (though not the type everyone there thought), and the kicker of "well evolution is just a theory," I couldn't help but walk out shaking my head in disappointment. It was a failure on two parts, for the science was mangled and the Church was represented as having a problem with evolution. Sigh. So the march of progress goes on.

I must thank Charles Alt over at Philosophy of Biology for giving me the final push I needed in starting this "thing." Also I promise to actually write about more interesting things, well that's definitely relative, in later postings