Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A Visit to APO

May 25, 2014 Leave a comment
Apache Point Observatory's 3.5-meter telescope

Apache Point Observatory’s 3.5-meter telescope

[All photos by me on my iPhone, alas. Not the greatest detail (but click on the photos for more).]

Two weeks ago tonight I was packing for a short trip to New Mexico to join in the celebration of Apache Point Observatory‘s twentieth anniversary, as well as the overlapping thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the university consortium (the Astrophysical Research Consortium) that runs the observatory. I departed the next morning, spending most of the day getting there.

It turns out to take a while to get to telescopes, even relatively nearby ones. No surprise, once one thinks about it, given the benefits of remote siting. But it wouldn’t have been such a long trip if there were non-stop flights from Seattle to El Paso. Instead, I flew to Phoenix, changed planes, then on to El Paso, then drove 90 or so miles north through the Tularosa Basin, from Texas into southern New Mexico, until I reached Alamogordo, then 16 winding miles east into the Sacramento Mountains to the tiny historic resort town of Cloudcroft, about 8700 feet up.

There’s an alternative: fly non-stop into Albuquerque on a Southwest flight that leaves Seattle at 6:30 am, then drive 225 miles south and east to Alamogordo before climbing to Cloudcroft. The main problem with this route is staying awake during the drive, after getting up 3:30 am to get to the airport. Gail and I took this approach in April 2008. I was fading before the town of Tularosa, a few miles north of Alamogordo. On the other hand, this route brings you through San Antonio, New Mexico, home of Owl Bar and Cafe and its green chile cheeseburgers, about which Michael Stern wrote,

the unique New Mexico hamburger is what has put this out-of-the-way watering hole on the good eats map. Since at least the early days of atomic bomb tests at nearby White Sands, when scientists used to come here for an explosive meal, The Owl Bar has built such an exalted a reputation that aficionados drive from Texas and Colorado to eat ’em two by two. It is so popular at lunch in the summertime, you may have to wait for a place to sit.

Crusty, gnarled patties of beef are covered with chopped hot green chilies and the chilies are in turn topped with a slice of cheese that melts into them and the crevices of the hamburger. The green chile itself is a flavor revelation; in concert with beef, it’s magic. Customary condiments include raw onion, chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and pickle chips. This is one glorious package, and while we have never compared it side-by-side to the excellent green chile cheeseburger up at Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, there can be no doubt that the Owl Bar’s version is among the state’s best. Green chile cheese fries are also available on the side.

Nearby is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which Gail and I didn’t have time for in our 2008 trip. Some day. It’s supposed to be extraordinary. But not this time. This time, I went alone, flew into El Paso, and came from the south.

The place to stay in Cloudcroft is The Lodge. On our 2008 visit, the sudden change in elevation left me breathless as I carried our bags up the stairs to our third floor room. This time I was on the third floor again, just down the hall from our 2008 room, but the climb up wasn’t such a struggle.

After a quick dinner at Rebecca’s, the Lodge’s restaurant, I got back in the car for the 16-mile drive to the observatory. A mile out of town, one turns onto State Road 6563, that number being something of an inside joke. If you’ve studied physics, you may know that one of the wavelengths of light emitted by a hydrogen atom is 6563 ångstroms. Hence the road number.

The road ends at Sunspot, New Mexico, home of the National Solar Observatory‘s Sacramento Peak site and the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. Apache Point Observatory was built nearby.

The road takes you up to about 9200 feet. It’s slow going, with lots of curves, but that’s the least of it, as one must be on the lookout for deer and elk, which hang out along the side. I got to APO for the opening festivities: dessert, non-alcoholic beverages (telescope sites can be dangerous; drinking in the dark and wandering into a telescope isn’t a good idea) and, once it got dark, viewing through the 3.5-meter telescope’s eyepiece.

It’s a rare rare day when an eyepiece is attached to a working research telescope. The light gathered by a telescope is normally directed into instruments that can capture the light and convert it into useful data, such as spectrographs. (See here for a list of the instruments available for this particular telescope.) Thus, this was a special treat, befitting a celebration.

I signed up for the first viewing. This would allow me to turn in early. But it also meant I wouldn’t view in full darkness. For our session, the telescope started with Mars, then was turned to Jupiter, then the moon. And since it was still early in the evening, the telescope mirrors were still adjusting to the outdoor temperatures, so the images were a bit blurry. Still, they were dramatic. Two of Jupiter’s moons were in the field of vision. The moon details were spectacular. Mind you, through a telescope of that size, the moon is pretty darn bright. One had to avoid looking directly into the center of the eyepiece.

Looking down into the 3.5-meter mirror, which you don't realize you're looking at because, you know, it's a mirror, an extremely well polished one at that.

Looking down into the 3.5-meter mirror, which you don’t realize you’re looking at because, you know, it’s a mirror, an extremely well polished one at that.

I headed back to the Lodge shortly after coming down from the telescope. The next morning, after a green chile and egg breakfast at Rebecca’s, I drove back for a day of talks at the National Solar Observatory’s visitor center. The morning talks featured history, the afternoon’s astronomy, with a two-hour break for lunch, walks, and conversation. I’ve been involved with the observatory for eleven years, but much of the early history was news to me. The lunch break allowed me to revisit the solar telescopes. Then it was back to the Lodge, for rest, a reception, and the festive dinner. The next day, I retraced my route–down to Alamogordo, into El Paso (with some time to kill driving around downtown, along the Rio Grande, and fighting through some closed roads and detours to get to the airport), then flights to Phoenix and Seattle.

I wouldn’t have minded a little extra time. In 2005, on my first trip to APO, I took a later flight out of El Paso. That gave me enough time to head west into the heart of the Tularosa Basin from Alamogordo for a stop at White Sands National Monument before driving to El Paso, and enough time in El Paso to park at a McDonald’s a few blocks north of the border and go through a small outdoor market next door to the McDonald’s. Some day we’ll go down for a more leisurely visit.

I’ll close with more photos.

In the one below, you see the “secondary” mirror of the 3.5-meter telescope. Light is collected by the huge 3.5-meter mirror at the bottom, reflected back up to the smaller secondary mirror at the top, then focused more narrowly and sent to the tertiary mirror below, which diverts the light into one of the attached instruments.

Secondary mirror

Secondary mirror

In the next photo, we look out through the opening of the building housing the 3.5-meter telescope, with other telescopes in view down the hill. The unusual-looking telescope to the right, partially obscured by a tree, is our famous 2.5-meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope.

The view from the 3.5-meter

The view from the 3.5-meter

Next is a view from a lookout point on Sacramento Peak, just to the side of the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. It was a little too hazy, so you can’t get that good a look at the Tularosa Basin and white sands below.

Tularosa Basin from Sacramento Peak

Tularosa Basin from Sacramento Peak

Finally, here is the Dunn solar telescope. Most of it is below ground. Solar telescopes are a whole different beast from ordinary optical telescopes.

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the National Solar Observatory

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the National Solar Observatory

Categories: Science, Travel

Shoot the Moon

April 20, 2014 1 comment


Above is NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day from two days ago. (Click on it to download a higher-resolution image.) As explained at NASA’s site, it’s a real photo, with genuine colors, the redness of the moon stemming from its being in mid-eclipse.

By way of explanation, there’s an on-going project at Apache Point Observatory, in southern New Mexico, that uses the observatory’s 3.5-meter telescope in reverse. Usually, a telescope collects light. Tom Murphy of UC San Diego has an on-going experiment that uses the telescope instead to project light, sending a laser beam to the moon.

Astronomers love to give their experiments clever acronyms. Murphy’s is APOLLO, or the the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation. Apollo is an appropriate name because the experiment depends on mirrors left behind by astronauts during the 1971 Apollo 15 lunar landing. By using the APO telescope to focus a laser beam on such a mirror, the APOLLO team can measure the time it takes for the light to return, thereby obtaining a precise measurement of the distance between the earth and the moon. This, in turn, provides a test of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

That’s the gist of it anyway. You can read more at the APOLLO page or Tom Murphy’s home page. Or, in the description of the photo that appeared with it two days ago (with links omitted; see original for lots of them):

This is not a scene from a sci-fi special effects movie. The green beam of light and red lunar disk are real enough, captured in the early morning hours of April 15. Of course, the reddened lunar disk is easy to explain as the image was taken during this week’s total lunar eclipse. Immersed in shadow, the eclipsed Moon reflects the dimmed reddened light of all the sunsets and sunrises filtering around the edges of planet Earth, seen in silhouette from a lunar perspective. But the green beam of light really is a laser. Shot from the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico, the beam’s path is revealed as Earth’s atmosphere scatters some of the intense laser light. The laser’s target is the Apollo 15 retroreflector, left on the Moon by the astronauts in 1971. By determining the light travel time delay of the returning laser pulse, the experimental team from UC San Diego is able to measure the Earth-Moon distance to millimeter precision and provide a test of General Relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity. Conducting the lunar laser ranging experiment during a total eclipse uses the Earth like a cosmic light switch. With direct sunlight blocked, the reflector’s performance is improved over performance when illuminated by sunlight during a normal Full Moon, an effect known as the real Full Moon Curse.

It turns out that I’ve been involved with Apache Point Observatory in an administrative role since 2003. My first visit to APO was in October 2005, the month APOLLO started, but I didn’t get to see a laser shot. On my next visit, in April 2008, I was at the observatory during daytime only. In three weeks, I’ll be back for a celebration of the telescope’s twentieth anniversary, which will include some nighttime viewing. Perhaps I’ll see the laser in operation. I hope so.

Categories: Photography, Science

I Knew It

January 20, 2014 Leave a comment


[Pearls Before Swine, January 12, 2014]

I’ve suspected for some time that the reason names of people elude me, even as I picture the people and provide details of their lives, is that I know too much. Each year, I have to find room in my brain for more and more people: friends and acquaintances, athletes and actors, musicians and artists, authors and journalists. It never ends. I succeed, for the most part, but recovering their names on demand is one task too many.

It turns out there’s an explanation for this. Thanks to Mark Liberman at Language Log, I learned last week of a new paper by a group of linguists at Tübingen on “the myth of cognitive decline.” (Also thanks to Liberman, I saw the Pearls Before Swine comic that fortuitously appeared eight days ago, which I have reproduced above. I would happily subscribe to the depicted Brain Alert service.)

Michael Ramscar and his Tübingen colleagues bring good news:

Because it is believed that cognitive abilities wither over the course of adulthood, population aging is thought to pose a serious threat to the world’s economic well-being (Watkins et al., 2005): As the proportion of cognitively impaired adults in the population increases, it is feared they will impose an ever-larger burden on the ever-smaller proportion of society still in full command of its cognitive faculties. Given this uncertain scenario, understanding the way our minds age could be considered the most significant matter that the psychological and brain sciences address.

In what follows, we consider the question of whether one might reasonably expect that performance on any measure of cognitive performance could or should be expected to be age- or, more specifically, experience-invariant. We shall suggest that, since the answer to this question is no, many of the assumptions scientists currently make about “cognitive decline” are seriously flawed and, for the most part, formally invalid. We will show that the patterns of response change that are typically taken as evidence for (and measures of) cognitive decline arise out of basic principles of learning and emerge naturally in learning models as they acquire more knowledge. These models, which are supported by a wealth of psychological and neuroscientific evidence (for reviews see Schultz, 2006; Siegel & Allan, 1996; Ramscar, Dye, & Klein, 2013a), also correctly identify greater variation in the cognitive performance of older adults, and successfully predict that older adults will exhibit greater sensitivity to the fine-grained properties of test items than younger adults. Given that the models run (and can be rerun) on computers, the possibility that any differences in their performance are due to aging hardware can be eliminated; instead, their patterns of performance reflect the information-processing costs that must inevitably be incurred as knowledge is acquired. Once the cost of processing this extra information is controlled for in studies of human performance, findings that are usually taken to suggest declining cognitive capacities can be seen instead to support little more than the unsurprising idea that choosing between or recalling items becomes more difficult as their numbers increase.

Aha! See, I’m not declining cognitively. I just know too much, as a result of which I also have greater sensitivity to fine-grained properties than you do. Cool!

Categories: Cognition, Science

A Short Bright Flash, 2

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment


After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.

Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

[Photo by me, September 2011]

A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”

In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.

The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.

Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which

stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:

The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …

Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.

Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”

I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.

Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.

With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment


I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

Mirror Earth

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, which I was only partway into. I finished it Tuesday night. What a puzzling marvel of a book, bubbling over with stories and ideas, narrated polyphonically (by design, though it takes a while to catch on, as characters are introduced briefly, then dropped for 50 pages, only to return more boldly). I was tempted to start in next on Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, his 2004 study of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. On further reflection, I decided I need a break.

What next? I looked over my growing backlog of novels, the most recent addition being Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. And my history backlog. I tried out Amazon samples of a few books. Last night, on seeing Amanda Foreman’s review of the new J.K. Rowling novel in tomorrow’s edition of the NYT Sunday book review, I was reminded that I’ve been wanting to read Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which the NYT had on its list of ten best books of 2011. Foreman is apparently quite the storyteller. But it’s such a long book.

From there I went over to the online version of today’s WSJ and came upon astronomer Mike Brown’s review of Michael Lemonick’s new book, Mirror Earth: The Search for our Planet’s Twin. I hadn’t imagined I was in the market for a popular science book, but Brown made me curious.

Mr. Lemonick has collected nearly all of the leading astronomers involved in the search for extrasolar planets—more than a dozen “exoplaneteers,” as he calls them—following them to mountain tops, lakeside lodges, roofs of buildings, and scattered offices around the country, to get them to explain what they’re doing and why. “Why” is particularly interesting, and most admit to the same basic motivation: finding life. Bill Borucki, the head of NASA’s planet-finding Kepler mission, wanted to “solve the problem of whether there’s life in the galaxy.” David Charbonneau, who is searching for tiny planets around tiny stars, desperately wants to know if there are “examples of life that arose independently from the life on the Earth.” Matt Holman, however, who finds multiple planets by their subtle gravitational interactions with one another, charmingly admits that he’s “motivated by precision”: With planetary dynamics, “you can make very careful, detailed predictions and detailed measurements and you can write down the equations of motion and I like that.”

Mr. Lemonick’s interactions with these scientists is the overwhelming strength of this very human story, but he also clearly explains the diverse tactics astronomers are using to try to find Earth twins. Some stare at 100,000 stars all at once hoping to pick out a fleeting dip in brightness as a perfectly aligned planet passes in front of its host star. Others carefully monitor individual stars for the minuscule push and pull that an Earthlike planet would exert. A few shift the entire focus to stars much smaller than the sun, where the visible effects of a planet would be correspondingly larger.

I read the free Amazon sample. I bought the book. I continued reading, and by early this morning, I was two-fifths through.

It’s easy reading. And fascinating. Plus, I even know two of the featured astronomers. I’ll soon have to decide whether to tackle A World on Fire. Or maybe Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. Meanwhile, I’m having fun exploring the universe with Lemonick.

Categories: Books, Science

Darwin’s Ghosts, 2

August 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Five weeks ago, I wrote about Rebecca Stott’s new book Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, which had received strong reviews in the WSJ (by historian of science Laura Snyder) and the Sunday NYT (by anthropologist Hugh Raffles). Although I was only a chapter into the book, I was enjoying it so far.

Assorted events intervened, bringing book reading to a halt for a few weeks. When my reading resumed, I moved on to two other books, Michael Sandel’s philosophical examination of recent trends in capitalism, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and Martin Walker’s crime novel of rural France, The Devil’s Cave (newly out in the UK but not yet available here). Tuesday night I returned to Darwin’s Ghosts, finding it even more engaging than I remembered and finishing it Friday night.

The opening chapter of Darwin’s Ghosts treats Darwin’s concern about identifying and giving proper credit to earlier scholars who in some way anticipated the ideas he published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Each of the eleven chapters that follow focuses on one or a small handful of such people, ones Stott has chosen to tell us about, not necessarily those whom Darwin had identified. We start with Aristotle 2200 years earlier, jump 1100 years to the Islamic scholar Jahiz, who lived in Basra and later Baghdad and wrote the Book of Living Things. Another jump takes us to Renaissance Italy and France, after which the pace slows down and we focus on a series of scholars in France and Britain. These include Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus; the great French trio of Cuvier, Lamarck, and Geoffroy; the Scot Robert Chambers; and finally, inevitably, Alfred Wallace.

Each chapter functions as an independent piece, the book resembling a linked collection of short stories. And indeed, each chapter has the narrative drive of a short story, with the historical setting and secondary characters economically yet marvelously sketched. One on-going theme is the importance for all of Darwin’s predecessors of close study of animals and fossils. Only through detailed empirical examination could they gain new insight. In this way, the chapters double as case studies on the development of scientific method.

What emerges as well is the enormous value of collections, not as a random assortment of curiosities, but as the source of new knowledge. The Cuvier-Lamarck-Geoffroy chapter is especially informative on this point, conveying the significance of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes and the establishment within, by the revolutionary government in 1793, of the Museum of Natural History. This is a good reminder, today as well, that beyond the exhibits one sees when one visits such museums lie vast collections that form the basis of fundamental scientific research.

It perhaps goes without saying — but I’ll say it — that another continuing theme is the ever-present and complicating role of religion, as both encourager of the study of animal anatomy, physiology, and species differentiation as a means of appreciating God’s wonders and discourager of new ideas that point toward the long history of the earth and the continual appearance (seemingly obvious once one looks at the data) of new species.

Coincidentally, just after I finished Darwin’s Ghosts, the NYT published excerpts from an interview with Rebecca Stott. Here are three of the questions and her answers.

Q. The very first sentence of your book is: “I grew up in a creationist household.” How much did that drive your interest in Darwin?

A. Darwin was described as the mouthpiece of Satan in the fundamentalist Christian community in which I was raised. His ideas were censored, and of course censorship can act as a kind of provocation to curiosity. The school library had a good encyclopedia with several pages on Darwin. I can’t say I understood much of his ideas back then, but I understood enough to be mute with fascination. It was extraordinarily different from the biblical version of how things had come to be – but no less strange.

Q. Aside from Wallace, who came closest to scientifically (as opposed to metaphorically) figuring out natural selection before Darwin?

A. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first men of science to have access to enough fossil and living animal specimens and bones to really gather the weight of evidence that would be needed to understand the ways in which species evolve. Lamarck worked in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which in 1800 had the most remarkable collection of natural history specimens in the world – Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen hundreds of famous European natural history collections during the Napoleonic Wars and brought them all to Paris.

Q. You start in 344 B.C. Then you hop forward to A.D. 850. And then to the late 15th century. What accounts for such large gaps between periods of progress in this subject?

A. I wish I knew. Perhaps certain thinkers or schools of thought have been lost to history. Perhaps in the West it was due to the dominance of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, over intellectual inquiry. Some of the periods of acceleration in the history of evolutionary thought were caused by material changes – the development of the printing press or of the microscope, growth in literacy rates, the gradual opening up of libraries and natural history collections to the public – but it always strikes me as salutary that one of the greatest periods of acceleration in evolutionary speculation took place in post-Revolutionary Paris between 1790 and 1815, when the priests had been banished and the professors had been given license to pursue any question they liked. That’s when evolutionary ideas really came into their own.

Categories: Books, History, Science

Curiosity, 2

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Ten days ago, with NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity two hours away from landing (or crashing), I embedded a NASA video illustrating the extraordinary sequence of steps involved in a successful arrival. I have since been following Curiosity’s twitter feed, a convenient way to keep abreast of the latest news and photos. A few hours ago, Curiosity told its followers about the video I’ve embedded above.

Earlier today, Curiosity tweeted with news of the video below, which features the unlikely NASA celebrity and flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as Mohawk Guy.

But nothing beats Curiosity’s photos themselves, like the one below, taken a week ago by Curiosity’s Mastcam.

Part of Gale Crater’s north wall

Categories: Science, Technology

Curiosity: Two Hours to Touchdown

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Curiosity — NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory — is due to land in Mars’ Gale Crater in two hours. The new scientific knowledge the rover will provide is sufficient cause for excitement, but the design of the landing process is pretty cool in its own right. (And, of course, if there’s not a successful landing, there will be no science at all.) Be sure to watch the video above, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to see what I’m talking about.

Also, from the website:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted.

Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight (about 1:31 a.m. Aug. 6, EDT).

“Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft,” said Mission Manager Brian Portock of JPL. “It’s natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared.”

Descent from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission. These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for this mission of discovery. The same innovations advance NASA toward capabilities needed for human missions to Mars.


At the critical moment of Curiosity’s touchdown, controllers and the rest of the world will be relying on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to provide immediate confirmation of a successful landing. Odyssey will turn to point in the right direction beforehand to listen to Curiosity during the landing. If for any reason that turn maneuver does not work, a successful landing cannot be confirmed until more than two hours later.

The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.

Good luck, Curiosity.

Categories: Science, Technology

A Shortage of Higgs Bosons

March 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote two weeks ago about starting Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and again a week ago with a minor complaint and further thoughts about the book. As I continued reading (finishing Thursday evening), I found a great deal of interest and regretted some of my less than enthusiastic comments. The philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics, treated early in the book in detailed discussions of Bohr’s complementarity principle and the Bohr-Einstein debates, return through Baggott’s treatment of the experimental work performed a few decades later on entanglement and related matters. Another strength is his description of the standard model of physics (explaining all the elementary particles and uniting the electroweak and strong forces), which emerges lucidly over the course of several chapters. The closing chapters treat approaches to quantum gravity: superstring theory and loops. Plus, there’s a diagram, adapted from a book by Roger Penrose, that I found especially enlightening, illustrating the three extensions one can attempt to perform to a theory of physics by gravitizing, relativizing, or quantizing it. Newton, for example, gravitated naive Galilean physics and Einstein relativized it. Gravitizing and relativizing yields general relativity. And so on.

Baggott’s story ends with the still-ongoing search for the Higgs boson, the standard model’s lone missing particle, which is introduced about halfway through the book as a possible explanation for particles’ having mass. Just last week, word came from Fermilab that it may have been observed, as it also may have been at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

However, what prompted this post is not my finishing of Baggott’s book or the news that the Higgs boson may have been seen at long last. Rather, it’s the use the brilliant Ted Rall made of the Higgs boson in his cartoon today, which you can see above. Rall explains:

Scientists claim to have finally isolated the long-hypothesized Higgs Boson, a particular responsible for endowing other elementary particles with mass. Which gives us an opportunity to, as many editorial cartoonists do, blend two completely unrelated news stories into an awkward cartoon about contemporary politics.

(By the way, please visit Rall’s site. I feel guilty about embedding his cartoon in this post, as he should get credit via page views. You should head over there, check out his other cartoons, maybe click on his donation link — which I tried to do this morning, but something went wrong in my effort to donate. I’ll try again.)

Categories: Cartoons, Politics, Science