Posts Tagged ‘Science’


June 8, 2013

My closet vice, not so closeted: I feed wild birds.
So does my wife, although she limits her involvement to preparing sugar water for hummingbirds.
A 50-pound bag of sunflower seeds is $25 and lasts for a couple of months.
So why spend money and time (the LBB’s, Little Brown Birds, will empty two bird feeders in just slightly over one day, and the doves and pheasants won’t keep coming unless I spread the seeds out in my field) to feed wild birds that will doubtless do very well for themselves without my attention?
By feeding them, I buy their habit and change it to suit myself. Because food is always there, and because they aren’t molested or endangered, they can choose to live part of their life just outside my window and I can pleasurably spend a part of my life observing them. No need to tramp through the weeds and brambles; camera and binoculars are close by, and there’s always something to learn.
They aren’t like people. And yet, in some ways they are. Territorial. Prone to squabbles even when resources are plentiful. Playful. And interested in humans, just as humans are interested in them.
The littlest ones, the hummingbirds, are true masters of flight. The LBB’s are second, but still able to come to a near-hover and then maneuver in order to claim a perch on the feeder from a resident they’ve just displaced. And the bigger doves, ground-feeders, are able to make long flights but not maneuver as the smaller ones do. Crows come around in the winter, often accompanying the cranes, and they’re intelligent and observant. If one of their number is killed, they appear to grieve, or at least pay noisy attention to the passing. The cranes dance; there’s no other word for it. And they’re very curious, too, observing what people and cats and such do.
The hawks will tend to prey on the doves rather than other types. Frightened doves fly straight in their panic, sometimes head-on into windows or walls. A Cooper’s hawk finds it easy to grab a dove rather than one of the LBB’s. More of a meal, too.
The sunflower seeds are a good investment, methinks.
Robins and Baltimore Orioles are not attracted to the seeds, but the robins like the irrigation in fields and lawns. Worms come to the surface, and the early-bird robin preys on earthworms and bugs. The roadrunner is a carnivore, too. A roamer, he has no fixed path but he’s always around. I spotted him in a tree yesterday with a lot of the robins and LBB’s, Was he trying an arboreal stalk? I don’t know. It looked like that to me, but I would think that a futile enterprise. Maybe the roadrunner is an experimenter, too.
A few mockingbirds are around, and from time to time, a northern flicker.
Recent unusual observations have included parents continuing to feed young after they’ve mastered flight and left the nest. And defensive moves by a hen pheasant to convince a Cooper’s hawk not to attack; successful, too. Two cock pheasants who couldn’t decide if they wanted to fight or be buddies; a bit of bluffing, and then they went their separate ways.
A good investment indeed.



June 1, 2013

We seem obsessed by popularity. Celebrities, their actions and comments and dress and lifestyle fascinate many. Not all, and not me, but so many that it’s impossible to ignore them.

Click on your browser, whether it be MSN or Yahoo or whatever, and you’ll see lots of stories about celebrities and sensationalism. There’s a small amount of actual news, but it takes some winnowing to find it.

Film; books; music; television; sports. A few practitioners are popular, many can be classed as ‘celebrities’, and even scientists sometimes make the list of such. And yet, how few of these hugely important people or ideas are still important just a few years on? That brief tenure for ideas is the inspiration for this essay.

Celebrity ideas in physics, for example, deal with dark matter and God particles and such. If you’re more into physics-in-depth, it might be quantum mechanics or relativity. The one explains the behavior of the very small, the other explains the behavior of the very large. But neither explains both, and yet each is too important to be abandoned. Nothing else works nearly so well where each applies.

What this means, to me, is that we don’t have full understanding of either of them. Others see no problem with simply using the two where each works best and ignoring the differences.

Some other popular ideas in physics: light is both a particle and a wave. Undeniably, experiments appear to prove this, even though it seems absurd to me. A particle is matter, a wave is energy; and if Einstein (a celebrity by any definition) is to be believed, the conversion factor between the two is huge, something like 900, 000 to one if memory serves. And the two are interchangeable, at least mathematically.

The same holds true for electrons, matter and also at the same time energy. Electrons have mass. But they can also be used, just as light waves are, as a medium for imaging. Electron microscopes use electron ‘waves’ for this purpose, and we’re beginning to see images of things like atoms and even part of atoms and atomic structure.

Once again, I suspect we lack some crucial bit of knowledge to explain the apparent contradictions.

String theory was once celebrated, but is less so nowadays. And dark energy, as well as dark matter, has its investigators and proponents. It’s popular. Even though neither is actually understood beyond the bare theory stage, and even though the likes of me doubts their existence, and if they actually do exist then I suspect they’ll be much less common than current models claim.

Popularity is a funny thing. Galileo was popular among the general public, which brought him to the attention of religious authorities, and that eventually got him tried for heresy. But that very popularity made it politically impossible for those religious authorities to simply burn him in the public square, as they did others. But centuries later Galileo is still popular and those who accused him and tried him and convicted him are forgotten.

I wonder whether Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber will be popular 20 years from now? But Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and so many others, will still be popular as they are now, centuries after their deaths. Mozart, too; no celebrity when he died in poverty, but celebrated now.

Will even entire music venues remain popular? Will rap and hip-hop be around, or will they go the way of doo-wop? Few practitioners of that unlamented style are still around, and calling them ‘celebrities’ would certainly be a stretch. This is true of most popular music, too. Twenty or thirty years on, they are forgotten…and justly so.

And so I wonder how many of the ‘popular’ ideas in science will endure and still be considered relevant a century or ten centuries from now. The mathematics of the ancient Greeks and Arabs is still relevant as much as three thousand years later. The religions of those times, not so much. And the priests, ‘celebrities’ in their lifetimes? Forgotten, even their names lost to obscurity. Kings; popes, princes, once highly important, now forgotten.

Sic transit popularity.

Jobs, too, change. Pity the mathematician who studied to be a calculator before that job was replaced by a machine, or a computer before such machines became readily and cheaply available. How many now even remember what a card-punch operator actually did? And Heinlein’s novel Starman Jones turns on the mathematical ability of two people, one who also had eidetic memory. The common Apple or IBM computer of the late 20th Century rendered Heinlein’s story idea quaint. In Red Planet and a couple of others, the slide rule was the ultimate in calculating devices. Few even know what those are now, and even fewer could make use of them if someone were to hand you one.

Popularity is essentially fleeting. But a few popular things become classics and endure. And some ideas endure even when their originator never became popular. Indeed, some died without understanding that their ideas would live on.

Genetics; everyone’s heard of that. It’s a celebrity idea. But Mendel died in obscurity, even if he’s considered today to be the father of that discipline. And plate tectonics grew from the work of Wegener, who was ridiculed during his lifetime.

And as for celebrities in science, and popular people or ideas, only time will tell whether they are classics or whether they will be abandoned to obscurity.

Opinions and Authority Figures

February 25, 2013

About education, and thinking, and opinions:

“There are almost as many routes to a Thomas Edison degree as there are students. In a way, that is the whole point of the college, a fully accredited, largely online public institution in Trenton founded in 1972 to provide a flexible way for adults to further their education.

“We don’t care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years in a monastery,” said George A. Pruitt, the college’s president, “as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique.”

“Learning takes place continuously throughout our lives,” he said. “If you’re a success in the insurance industry, and you’re in the million-dollar round table, what difference does it make if you learned your skills at Prudential or at Wharton?” ”

The above clip from the NY Times caused me to reflect on some of the writing I’ve done and the occasional arguments that have arisen because of that. For too many, I think, academic credentials count for more than the thought behind a concept, even when a brief examination should indicate that there is no relationship between those credentials and what’s being discussed.

In many disciplines, there are schools of thought that emphasize a certain approach. In economics, you were likely to examine trends as a monetarist or as someone who favored taxation as a tool to examine and manage a national economy (at least, when I took economics, that’s changed now in a number of ways, as economics progresses as a science). By favoring one or the other school of thought in a discipline, education forces the student to adopt a viewpoint of what he’s studying and often this viewpoint reflects that of the teacher. As a result, well educated people may often disagree profoundly with other well educated people based on differences in schools of thought.

And for those who have educated themselves outside of mainstream thinking, those same well-educated types might reject any ideas put forward. For those outside the thinking, they rely on those magical letters (PhD) to provide legitimacy…even when the degree was achieved in a field that doesn’t relate precisely to what’s being discussed, as for example someone trained as a tax attorney who’s now going to have to focus on monetary policy because he’s been appointed to the Federal Reserve.

Not that the above has happened; it’s just an illustration. Another illustration might deal with medicine; orthodox medicine, oriental medicine, holistic approaches via herbs….

But I also comment on things like global warming, and the discussion got quite heated (:-)) in one venue. Most people now accept that the planet is warming up, and that human activity is at least partially at fault for this. And so we turn to accepted authority for answers and policy guidance, and never question whether their opinions are really relevant because they were educated and have since done their research before global warming was accepted fact. And we also find that politics and greed enter the discussion, because those PhD’s are readily sold to politicians or industrialists who use them for their own selfish purposes. Confusion is easily exploited for profit by the shortsighted and greedy.

Another area I comment on has to do with dark matter. I thought the mathematics was at fault for a time, but I’ve since changed my mind. It’s the interpretation, not the math, and the assignment of mathematical symbols to real-world data and then manipulation of those symbols without sufficient regard to just how descriptive they are of the data they’re supposed to represent. And there are any number of ‘authorities’ on dark matter out there, PhD’s and academic degrees in plenty, professorships barely behind that…and yet, no one has actually DETECTED anything that could be dark matter. Undeterred, the ‘authorities’ on dark matter soldier on, spending enormous amounts of money and much time down in dark holes in the ground. Somehow, investigation of dark matter apparently is best done down in the guts of old mines. Even when the investigation has so far failed to find anything of significance.

There is no authority on global warming. There is no authority on dark matter. Whatever authorities there are who deal with economics, they tend to disagree with each other to the point where one must question their standing as an ‘authority’. There are just people with opinions, and some of them have advanced degrees. Just not degrees in the topic they’re so certain of. Meantime, it’s up to all of us to actually think about the topics we discuss before we decide to believe, or how much belief we’re going to invest in opinions.

One day there may be true authorities on these subjects. But not yet. As a final illustration, Linus Pauling published an essay regarding the structure of the DNA molecule. He had already received a Nobel for chemistry…and his model was wrong. After Watson and Crick, the discipline began to really take off, and now there are real geneticists and even something undreamed of back then, epigeneticists. But UNTIL Watson and Crick published their hypothesis, there were only people with wrong opinions.

Even if they did have advanced degrees.