Archive for the ‘Favorite Things’ Category

One Horn

May 31, 2017

I have been studying German lately, mostly by using Duolingo, and I have noticed an interesting difference between English and German. This article I read about Ira Einhorn, the founder of Earth Day who murdered and composted his girlfriend brought the difference to mind.

Ira Einhorn was on stage hosting the first Earth Day event at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970. Seven years later, police raided his closet and found the “composted” body of his ex-girlfriend inside a trunk.

A self-proclaimed environmental activist, Einhorn made a name for himself among ecological groups during the 1960s and ’70s by taking on the role of a tie-dye-wearing ecological guru and Philadelphia’s head hippie. With his long beard and gap-toothed smile, Einhorn — who nicknamed himself “Unicorn” because his German-Jewish last name translates to “one horn”  —advocated flower power, peace and free love to his fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. He also claimed to have helped found Earth Day.

Einhorn is actually the German word for unicorn. What I have noticed is that English tends to create new words for new or abstract concepts by taking words from other languages, particularly Latin and Greek and often combining them in new ways not found in the original languages. German tends to create new words from other German words and seems to be less eager to take words from other languages.

In English we watch television (Greek tele “far” + Latin visionem, participle of videre “to see”). Germans watch the Fernseher (literally “far-seer” in German). We may study science (Latin scientia “knowledge) in school while Germans study Wissenschaft (“knowledge” in German). If you study chemistry you may be familiar with the elements, like hydrogen (Greek Hydr “water” + gen “produces or born from” thus “made from water”) or oxygen (Greek oxys “acid”+ gen so “made from acid). In German they are Wasserstoff (waterstuff) and Sauerstoff (sourstuff). Carbon comes from Latin carbonem “coal” Germans call it Kohlenstoff, “coalstuff”.

Electricity (Latin electrum and Greek elektron both meaning amber) is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The Germans do have the word Elektrizität but they also call it Strom “stream, current”. We may be afraid of exposure to radiation(Latin radiationem “shining” from radius “beam of light). A German would prefer not to be exposed to Strahlung “beaming”.

You don’t have to study science to notice the difference. English speakers may vote (Latin votus “to vow”) in an election (Latin ex “out of” + legere “to choose”) for Congress (Latin congressus from com “with” + gradus “to walk” thus walking or meeting together) or Parliament (French from parler “to speak”). Germans may abstimmen (choose or coordinate) in a Wahl (choice) for the Bundestag (Bundes “Federal” Tag literally “day” from Latin diet “daily” the name of various representative assemblies in the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere). This body may pass legislation (Latin legis latio “proposing a law”). In German it is Gesetzgebung (Gesetz “law” + gebung “-tion” so “lawization”. In English, we may participate (Latin participare “to share”) in and organization (Latin organizationem from organum “organ”). In German they teilnehmen (take part) in a Unternehmen (undertaking). I could go on and on but you get the idea.

I don’t want to exaggerate the contrast between the two languages. German does have plenty of words derived from Latin, mostly taken, like English through French, and English, of course, does make new words out of older English words, just like German. We can say we take part in an “undertaking” too. In fact, English seems to have a double vocabulary, one made up of simpler words derived from Anglo-Saxon and another composed of fancier words from French and Latin. Which approach is better, the German or the English is a matter of taste, I think. English perhaps has more words and is more eager to appropriate words from other languages, but all those Latin words may make English a more abstract language in some respects, one more easy to obfuscate in. German seems somehow homier, yet as anyone who tried to read Hegel or some of the other German philosophers can attest, German can also be an obfuscating language with dense verbiage.

So, why is English half a romance language, while German remains, well, Germanic? Part of the reason must be that there was nothing like the Norman Conquest in German history. Germany was not conquered by a nation that spoke a Romance Language as England was conquered by the French speaking Normans and so there was not the huge influx of Latin derived words into German as there was with English.

Yet, I also think that there is another reason why English has generally been careless about adopting words. from other languages. For some reason, English speakers seem to lack the concern about language purity found in the speakers of many other languages. The French have the Academie Francaise, an official institution that tries to safeguard the purity of the French language by setting standards for usage and inventing proper French words to replace any foreign words that have managed to slip in. Almost every major language has a similar official organization to set standards, with one exception, English. There has never been any sort of official or semi-official body in the English speaking world with any authority to set official standards for usage, or even for spelling, nor has there been any serious movement to purify the English language by purging it of “foreign” words. Other languages have had spelling reforms sponsored by various governments. German spelling was reformed in 1901 and again in 1996. The People’s Republic of China simplified the characters used in written Chinese, and there was even a proposal, shortly after the Communists came to power to abandon the characters altogether in favor of romanization. Ataurk ordered the Turks to abandon their traditional use of the Arabic script to write Turkish in favor of the Latin alphabet. Nothing like that is likely to occur in English, even though English orthography is a mess and badly needs to be simplified.

It seems that there is simply about the Anglophone mind and culture that tends to resist regimentation and regularization imposed from above, even when such such regularization might make things easier. English speakers have generally been the most reluctant to adopt the metric system, and the United States still uses the traditional system of measurements. We seem to prefer things haphazardly and chaotically rather than rational and regular, and we don’t mind speaking a language where every rule has an exception and in which if we don’t have a word for something, we have no trouble stealing words from other languages. If the new words aren’t proper English words, we don’t care.

Maybe if English were more regular, it would be an easier language for foreigners to learn. Since English is rapidly becoming the Common Tongue of the whole world, maybe we owe it to the poor souls who have to learn the language to make it easier for them. On the other hand, the fact that English has at least one word from almost every other language may make it at least a little familiar to others. English is certainly a more interesting and dynamic language because of its propensity to borrow shamelessly from other languages and maybe that is part of the reason English is the primary international  language.

 

It’s Greek to Me

April 20, 2017

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (feedproxy.google.com)

Basidium

July 8, 2016

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People

Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men

Great Ta and his wise men

Growing Crops on Mars

June 27, 2016

We may have already a taken a step towards the colonization of Mars. Any colony on Mars whether a permanent settlement or a long-term scientific research expedition will have to be largely self-sufficient because of the long travel time from Earth. At the very least, humans living on Mars for any great length of time will have to be able to get food and water on Mars, if possible. Obviously, given Mars’s thin atmosphere, it will not be possible to plant fields of crops out in the open, but it may be possible to create domed habitations in which vegetables can be grown. This would be a lot easier if Martian soil could be used or modified since bringing soil from Earth, or hydroponic equipment would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Mars

It is not clear whether terrestrial plants can grow in Martian soil, given the lack of organic matter and different chemical composition. There is some encouraging news from The Netherlands in this article in phys.org.

Dutch scientists said Thursday crops of four vegetables and cereals grown on soil similar to that on Mars have been found safe to eat, amid plans for the first manned mission to the planet.

Abundant harvests of radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes all grown on the soil were found to contain “no dangerous levels” of heavy metals, said the team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“These remarkable results are very promising,” said senior ecologist Wieger Wamelink.

“We can actually eat the radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes, and I am very curious what they will taste like.”

Future Mars settlers will have to take food supplies with them and then plant crops in order to survive.

So using soil developed by NASA to resemble that of the red planet, the university has been experimenting since 2013 and has managed to raise 10 crops.

But uncertainty remains about whether they would absorb the high levels of heavy metals such cadmium, copper and lead, present in Mars soil.

Further tests are now needed on the remaining six crops, including potatoes, in research which is being backed by a crowd-funding campaign.

NASA plans a manned trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years or so, and similar projects are also being pursued by US billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet.

The Mars One project has backed the Wageningen experiments and is currently undertaking a third selection to whittle down the remaining 100 candidates hoping to be among their astronauts to 40.

“It’s important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources,” said Wamelink.

When I read the headline, I thought that they had grown the vegetables and grains in actual Martian soil samples and I was a little disappointed to learn that the soil used was Earth soil made to simulate Martian soil. It does show that it is at least possible to use Martian soil, though I think it would be better to obtain actual Martian soil to be sure. No matter how well designed our probes are, there is always a possibility that we have overlooked something that could be only be discovered by human beings in laboratories on Earth.

If the members of a Martian expedition do grow their own food, they will need to bring along bacteria from Earth to add the necessary organic components to make the soil more Earth-like. Such bacteria could be genetically modified to flourish in Martian conditions. No form of terrestrial life can survive on the surface of Mars, at present, the thin atmosphere cannot shield the surface from deadly ultraviolet radiation, but there is no reason Terran life couldn’t survive underground. Conditions wouldn’t that much worse than in Antarctica. This bacteria, adapted for Mars could be the first step in terraforming Mars for human habitation.

So, when can I leave for Mars?

One of these days, I'd like to look out my window and see this.

One of these days, I’d like to look out my window and see this.

Pi Day

March 14, 2016
English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University o...

English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics Deutsch: Pi Pie (π-Kuchen), hergestellt an der Technischen Universität Delft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of the nerds out there, including me, today is international Pi Day, the day when we celebrate our favorite mathematical constant. Pi Day is best celebrated by pi memorization contests, walking in circles, and, of course, eating pies, or is it pis? I think I will celebrate by writing a little about pi. This year is a special Pi Day. The first digits of pi are 3.1415926 with can be rounded to 3.1416 so this year 3/14/16 is the the Rounded Pi Day

Pi or π is, as everyone should know, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Pi is an irrational number. By this, they do not mean that pi makes no sense but rather that pi is a constant that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Numbers like 2 or .445 or 1/2 can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and so are rational. Numbers like pi or the square root of any number that is not a perfect square, the square root of 2 for instance, are irrational. An irrational number expressed in decimal form never ends or repeats but continues to infinity. Thus, there can never be a last digit of pi.

The symbol π was first by the mathematician William Jones in 1706 and was popularized by another mathematician, Leonhard Euler. They chose π, the Greek equivalent of the Latin letter p, because it is the first letter of the word periphery. Π, by the way is not pronounce “pie” in Greek but “pee”, just like our p. I don’t think that international “pee” day would be nearly so appealing.

Although the symbol for pi is relatively recent, the concept is very old. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about it. Pi is even mentioned in the Bible.

23 He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits[o] to measure around it. 24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit. The gourds were cast in two rows in one piece with the Sea. (1 Kings 7:23-24)

Properly speaking, the line around the “Sea” should have been 31.5 cubits but the ancient Hebrews were very knowledgeable about geometry and measuring techniques were crude.

There is no particular reason to calculate pi to so many digits. No
conceivable application of pi would possibly take more than 40 digits.
Still, the challenge of calculating pi to the farthest digit possible has been an irresistible one for mathematicians over the years.

Around 250 BC, Archimedes was the first mathematician to seriously try to calculate pi. He used a geometric method of drawing polygons inside and outside a circle and measuring their perimeters. By using polygons with more and more sides he was able to calculate pi with more precision and ended determining the value of pi as somewhere between 3.1408 and 3.1429. Archimedes’s method was used in the west for more than a eighteen hundred years. The Chinese and Indians used similar methods. The best result using the geometric method was the calculation of pi to 38 digits in 1630.

With the development of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660’s it was possible to calculate pi using infinite series, or the sum of the terms of an infinite sequence. The best calculations with these methods were done by the mathematician Zacharias Daze who calculated pi to 200 places in 1844 and William Shanks who spent fifteen years to calculate pi to 707 digits. Unfortunately he made a mistake with the 528 digit. Meanwhile, in 1761 Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that pi is irrational.

Computers made the calculation of pi much faster so pi could be calculated to more digits. ENIAC calculated pi to 2037 places in 1949. This record didn’t last long. A million digits were reached 1970. As of  2011, pi has been calculated to 10,000,000,000,050 places.

Pi is not just used in geometry. There are a number of applications of pi in the fields of statistics, mechanics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and many others. Here is a list of just some of the formulae that use pi. It seems you can find pi everywhere.

With that in mind then, happy pi day! For your enjoyment here are the first thousand digits of pi.

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510
  58209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679
  82148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128
  48111745028410270193852110555964462294895493038196
  44288109756659334461284756482337867831652712019091
  45648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273
  72458700660631558817488152092096282925409171536436
  78925903600113305305488204665213841469519415116094
  33057270365759591953092186117381932611793105118548
  07446237996274956735188575272489122793818301194912
  98336733624406566430860213949463952247371907021798
  60943702770539217176293176752384674818467669405132
  00056812714526356082778577134275778960917363717872
  14684409012249534301465495853710507922796892589235
  42019956112129021960864034418159813629774771309960
  51870721134999999837297804995105973173281609631859
  50244594553469083026425223082533446850352619311881
  71010003137838752886587533208381420617177669147303
  59825349042875546873115956286388235378759375195778
  18577805321712268066130019278766111959092164201989

 

The Future is Today

October 21, 2015

It has been a long time since I have seen any of the Back to the Future movies so I wasn’t aware of the significance of this date, October 21, 2015, until I happened to see articles about the classic trilogy in places like USA Today. This is the day in the future that Marty McFly travelled to from 1985 in the second movie. The future is today. Naturally, everyone seems interested in discussing what the thirty year old movies got right, and wrong, about 2015. I am not really so interested in how correct their speculations were myself, except that I really did want one of those flying cars. I am more interested in discussing how Marty McFly’s mission in the first movie is one that he had absolutely no chance of completing successfully.

BTTFIIdate

I trust by now the plot of the three Back to the Future movies is familiar enough that I need not rehash it in exacting detail. Suffice it to say that fifteen year old Marty McFly takes Doc Brown‘s time machine/DeLorean back to the year 1955 and accidentally prevents his parents from meeting and falling in love. This is a serious problem for McFly since if his parents never meet, he won’t exist so with the help of a younger Doc Brown, Marty spends the rest of the movie trying to get his parents together, a mission made more difficult by the fact that his father is a nerd who is being persecuted by the school bully, Biff Tannen and his mother has become infatuated with Marty. Of course, Marty succeeds in the end and even arranges for his father to stand up to the bully. He returns to 1985 and takes of his old life again.

The problem is that this is impossible. Marty has already interrupted the course of events that led to his conception and birth. Even though he managed to get his parents to fall in love with one another, the whole timeline in which they dated, got married, and conceived Marty has been changed. Even if by some miracle, Marty managed to arrange for his parents to have intercourse at the precise time and place he was originally conceived, it is still unlikely that he would be conceived. When a man ejaculates, he releases hundreds of millions of sperm cells. It is simply not possible for Marty to arrange for the precise same egg and sperm to unite to create Marty. No doubt his parents would have a child at about the same time as they did Marty in the original timeline and it may even be a boy they named Marty, but it wouldn’t be the same person as the original Marty McFly. It would be like a sibling

I want my flying car

I want my flying car

But even if Marty’s parents had a baby with the precise genes as the original Marty, it still wouldn’t be the same person. We are more than the genetic code we inherit at birth. The experiences we undergo as we grow up also shape us into being the person we are. At the end of the first movie, it was made clear that Marty’s intervention had changed the lives of his parents. By arranging for his father to stand up to Biff Tannen, he gave his father a confidence and self-esteem he lacked in the original timeline and instead of being a loser stuck in a dead-end job, Marty’s father was a successful science fiction writer. Obviously, Marty growing up in the home of a successful writer is going to have different experiences than the original Marty. For one thing, Marty’s relationship with the older Doc Brown might not have been the same. Brown was something of a substitute father for Marty and if his own father was more impressive, perhaps Marty would not have sought out Doc Brown’s company.

And Mr. Fusion

And Mr. Fusion

The most realistic end for the first Back to the Future movie then might have been for Marty McFly to get his parents together and then fade away as he realized that he didn’t exist in the new timeline, or maybe for Marty to get back to 1985 and find another Marty in his place with no one knowing anything about the original Marty. Or maybe the timeline presented at the end of Back to the Future was the real timeline and his parents had always been brought together by their son. In other words what the viewer sees as cause and effect is actually reversed. It is confusing paradoxes like that which lead most scientists to believe that time travel into the past is impossible.

Back to the Future is still a fun movie to watch, if you don’t think too much about it.

The Martian

September 30, 2015

I have just finished reading the most amazing book, The Martian by Andy Weir. Perhaps you have seen the advertisements for the forth-coming movie starring Matt Damon as the Martian of the title. The movie is not out yet, and it is unlikely that I will watch it before it comes out on DVD, but I did read the book to see what all the hype was about. I d not know how they will adapt this book to the movie, such adaptations are always a chancy business and I am rarely satisfied with the result, but if the movie is at all faithful to the plot of the book, it will be well worth watching.

The_Martian_2014

The Martian is not, as the title would suggest, a science fiction novel about a person from the planet Mars. Instead it is the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is one of a crew of six astronauts on a mission to explore Mars. A dust storm causes NASA to abort the mission after only six days on the surface of Mars and Watney is seemingly killed while the crew is trying to get to the Mars Ascent Vehicle which is designed to return the crew to their orbiting space craft Hermes which will take them home to Earth. However, Watney is not dead but has been left behind, all alone on Mars with no way to return to Earth or even to communicate with NASA. The rest of the novel is concerned with Mark Watney’s efforts to stay alive on Mars until he can be rescued.

 

In many ways, The Martian is a hearkening back to the great, old days of science fiction, to a more optimistic time when science fiction was about man’s exploration of the universe and nothing seemed impossible with the application of scientific knowledge and reason, rather than the pessimistic post-apocalyptic dystopias and social justice warrior crap that one sees too much of in the genre these days. The plot is well paced and exciting. Although I knew that Watney will make it off of Mars, this isn’t the sort of story that has him die at the last minute, the question of just how he will manage the next crisis kept me, almost literally, at the edge of my seat and made the book almost impossible to put down. Mark Watney himself is an engaging character, something of a twenty-first century Robinson Crusoe, clever and resourceful enough to find ways to survive. Just as Crusoe was able to salvage his wrecked ship to enable himself to survive on his island, Watney is capable of making use of the equipment left behind on Mars. Much of the story is told by way of the audio log he keeps and his often humorous commentary on the conditions and problems he faces helps to make what might be tedious exposition enjoyable to read. There is no Man Friday on Mars for Watney, but scavenging the Pathfinder lander allows him to regain contact with Earth which surely must be just as momentous as Crusoe’s finding a footprint in the sand and realizing that he no longer has to face his troubles alone.

The story is also told from the point of view of Mark Watney’s crew-mates and the engineers and administrators at NASA who are desperately trying to find a way to bring Watney home, or at least send him supplies to last until the next mission to Mars. They are shown to be competent, loyal and determined and in that respect The Martian reminded me of the movie Apollo 13. The science in the Martian is rock solid and this is one of the hardest, on the scale between hard to soft, science fiction books I have ever read. Andy Weir is the son of a scientist and a student of science himself. All of the technology in the book is based on real life technology we have right now and the mission to Mars is based on real plans that NASA might adopt to send astronauts to Mars. Weir’s portrayal of Martian conditions is based on the very latest information from probes. If a man ever did get stranded on Mars, this is a realistic story of how he might survive.

I can highly recommend The Martian to any reader whether science fiction fan or not. There is just one problem. The Martian actually makes the prospect of living on Mars seem desirable. Ever since I finished it, I have had the most intense desire to hop on a spaceship and go to Mars myself. Where do I sign up?

The red hills of Mars

The red hills of Mars

 

There is no Queen of England

August 30, 2015

One of my favorite movies is Megamind and this is my favorite scene from the movie.

 

The strange thing is that the statement made by Hal/Tighten, “There is no Queen of England” happens to be correct. There is, in fact, no such person as the Queen of England. She is as real as the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. If that is true than who is this woman?

Queen-Elizabeth-II-

That is Her Royal Majesty Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well various former British colonies. England is, to be sure, part of the kingdom she reigns over, but England has not been an independent, sovereign nation since the Acts of Union in 1707. The United Kingdom is made up of three kingdoms, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and one principality, Wales united into one nation with a common government and Parliament.

England is the largest of the countries that make up the United Kingdom both in area and population and so has tended to dominate the kingdom to the point that British has largely become synonymous with English. It is the English language that is spoken throughout the British Isles while the various Celtic languages are either endangered or extinct. It is understandable, then, that the Queen of Great Britain should be referred to as simply the Queen of England.

The Kingdom of England that was united into the United Kingdom is generally held to begin with the Norman Conquest of 1066, though, of course British history stretches back to the Roman province of Britannia. Since the Conquest did mark a drastic shift in English history, culture and even language and every monarch since 1066 has been a descendant of William the Conqueror, so it seems fair enough to regard it as the establishment of the English nation as we know it today. The English language and people existed for many centuries before the coming of the Normans, however. It was the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Britain after the Romans withdrew in 410 who gave England its name and language. These Anglo-Saxon invaders either drove out or assimilated the Latin or Celtic speaking Romanized Britons. For some time, England was split into many, the traditional number is seven, petty kingdoms and subject to invasions by the Norsemen, but in the century before the Norman conquest began to be unified under the rule of Wessex, the one English kingdom that managed not to be conquered by the Vikings. The Norman Conquest unified England somewhat more firmly and while the Normans brought continental feudalism to England with its potential for disunity and English kings had some trouble keeping their barons in line, England remained a more unified state than France or Germany. In time, England grew strong enough to dominate the British Isles.

The English flag

The English flag

I referred to Wales as a principality, but that is not strictly accurate. Unlike the English and Scots, the Welsh never quite succeeded in coalescing into a unified, sovereign state and the country now known as Wales was divided into many small kingdoms or principalities after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. Although divided and apt to fight among themselves, the Welsh did manage to fend off the Anglo-Saxons, thus retaining their language and separate identity. There were various Welsh lords who were able to conquer much of Wales and receive the acknowledgement as overlord by other Welsh rulers, but such Welsh kingdoms never outlasted the lives of the first rulers.

The Normans had somewhat more success in subduing the Welsh. In 1216, the Welsh lords agreed to recognize Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd as their Paramount Lord and King John of England gave him the title of Prince of Wales. This Principality of Wales only extended to about two-thirds of the modern Wales and the Princes of Wales were vassals of the English crown and while largely autonomous were not entirely independent. Even this limited independence was ended when England annexed Wales to the English crown in 1284. The custom of giving the heir apparent the title of Prince of Wales began in 1301. There were a number of rebellions by descendants of Welsh leaders but such rebellions were unsuccessful, but ultimately the Welsh descended Tudor, Henry VII, became King of England in 1485. His son Henry VIII united the governments and legal codes of England and Wales in 1542. Welsh nationalism has not played as prominent role in the politics of Wales as Scottish nationalism has had and there is little support for Welsh independence from Britain. Wales was granted a National Assembly with limited powers in 1999.

Welsh Flag

The Welsh Flag

The beginnings of the Kingdom of Scotland are somewhat obscure. The Romans conquered the southern part of Scotland, the lowlands, but were never able to extend their empire into the highlands. The Romans referred to the peoples North of their border as Caladonians, a term derived from a Celtic language, or  Picti, meaning the painted or tattooed ones in Latin. After the Romans withdrew from Britain there was a period of confusion and it seems that there were a number of kingdoms or tribal federations in Scotland. The word Scot is derived from Scoti, a name given to Gaelish raiders and invaders from Ireland. These Scoti gradually displaced and intermingled with the Picts and their many petty kingdoms were eventually united into the Kingdom of Alba by Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century. There followed a period of struggle against the Northmen and fighting for the crown by branches of the MacAlpin dynasty, but by the time of the Norman Conquest, Scotland had emerged as a rival kingdom to England.

Scotland was a good deal poorer and less populated than England and so was never really a serious threat to its southern neighbor. The Scots could raid and harass England’s northern borderlands, however, and the existence of an enemy on the Island of Britain always meant that England could never exert its full force against the French in their frequent wars. Indeed, France and Scotland were often allied together against England in what was often called the Auld Alliance. For their part, the English could invade Scotland and even conquer large parts of the kingdom but discovered that occupying a country is far more difficult than invading it. Scotland’s rugged terrain and stubborn people; even Scottish kings had difficulty controlling their subjects, soon induced the English to withdraw.

In 1371,Robert II the first of the Stewart or Stuart dynasty became King of Scotland. Robert Stuart’s great-great grandson James IV married Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, King of England in 1503, linking the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Their great grandson was King James VI of Scotland. As a descendant of Henry VII, James VI was the closest relative of Queen Elizabeth I of England and upon her death in 1603, James ascended to the English throne as King James I of England. Although the crowns of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in the person of James VI and I in his person and in his heirs, the two kingdoms remained separate nations, each with its own Parliament, code of laws, and even state church.

The Scottish flag

The Scottish flag

The two kingdoms would have to wait a century before becoming united by the Acts of Union in 1707. Each kingdom had different reasons for desiring a united kingdom. The English were concerned that Scotland might choose a different monarch than England. James I’s grandson James II had been deposed the Glorious Revolution of 1685 by his daughter Mary I and her Dutch husband William III. William and Mary had no children and upon his death in 1702, Mary’s sister Anne became Queen. None of Queen Anne’s seventeen children survived to adulthood and since James II and his son James were Roman Catholic and so ineligible for the throne under English law, the next King of England after Anne would be George of Hanover, a great-grandson of James I. The Scottish parliament reserved the right to select its own King of Scotland so it was conceivable that the union of the two crowns could be ended as soon as Anne died. The English did not want that to happen. As for the Scots, union was desirable because Scotland had remained a poor and underdeveloped country compared to England. Since England and Scotland were separate nations the usual barriers to trade, like tariffs, were applied. Scottish nationals in England could be treated as aliens. Scottish merchants did not have full access to markets in England or England’s colonies in North America. Union with England was seen as a way to develop the Scottish economy and increase the standard of living to English levels.

Nevertheless, the Acts of Union were very unpopular in Scotland. It required clever parliamentary maneuvering, even outright bribery to get the Scottish Parliament to approve the Union. Scottish nationalism has continued to play an important part in Scottish politics. Jacobite pretenders from the Stuart family generally found considerable support in Scotland throughout the eighteenth century. More recently, there has been a growing Scottish National Party which is in favor of independence from the United Kingdom. Like Wales, Scotland was granted a Parliament with limited powers in 1999. The Scottish voters rejected independence from Great Britain in a referendum last year, but given that the Scottish National Party is the largest single party in the Scottish Parliament, it seems likely that the issue of independence will be revisited in the future. If Scotland were to become independent, they would probably retain the monarch, so the political situation in Britain would revert back to what it was before 1707, with Queen Elizabeth II of England becoming Elizabeth I of Scotland.

Last, there is the Kingdom of Ireland. Like the Welsh, the Irish never really cohered into a single kingdom. There was a High King of Ireland in the Early Middle Ages, but no high king really had much authority beyond his own realm. Such unity as existed in Ireland was destroyed after the tenth century by invading Vikings and later Normans from England. Henry II of England invaded Ireland in 1198 and made his son John Lord of Ireland. From that time the Kings of England also took the title of Lord of Ireland, whatever the Irish might have wanted, until 1542 when Henry VIII abolished the title of Lord of Ireland and proclaimed himself King of Ireland. Thus, the crowns of England and Ireland were united before the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, although the Crown of Ireland was an English creation. Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom by the Act of Union of 1800, making it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Crown and Parliament of Ireland were creations of England for the Protestant English and Scottish settlers in Ireland. The native Irish were Catholics and generally played no part in the government of Ireland before and after the Union. By the end of the nineteenth century, reforms in the British government restored many basic rights to the Catholics of Britain and Ireland, but many Irish began to want independence from Britain. After a long and bloody struggle, the United Kingdom granted Ireland Home Rule in 1920. In 1922, Ireland became a dominion of the British Commonwealth under the name of the Irish Free State and in 1937 the Irish voted in a referendum to become completely independent from Britain as the Republic of Ireland. The six northern counties of Ireland with a Protestant majority opted to remain in the United Kingdom in 1920 and now form the region of Northern Ireland. This decision was controversial at the time, particularly among Northern Irish Catholics and Irish nationalist who wanted an undivided Ireland and remains controversial to the present day, although the violence has declined. The strong majority of the people of Northern Ireland prefer to stay in the United Kingdom and there is little chance of Northern Ireland gaining independence or joining with the the rest of Ireland. Like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has a parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, with limited powers.

Northern Irland

Northern Ireland

So, there is no Queen of England because there is no Kingdom of England. Next time you happen to meet the Queen be sure to refer to her by her proper title as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.

 

Pi Day

March 14, 2015
English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University o...

English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics Deutsch: Pi Pie (π-Kuchen), hergestellt an der Technischen Universität Delft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of the nerds out there, including me, today is international Pi Day, the day when we celebrate our favorite mathematical constant. Pi Day is best celebrated by pi memorization contests, walking in circles, and, of course, eating pies, or is it pis? I think I will celebrate by writing a little about pi. This year is a very special Pi Day. The first digits of pi are 3.1415 so this year 3/14/15 is the Pi Day of the century.

Pi or π is, as everyone should know, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Pi is an irrational number. By this, they do not mean that pi makes no sense but rather that pi is a constant that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Numbers like 2 or .445 or 1/2 can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and so are rational. Numbers like pi or the square root of any number that is not a perfect square, the square root of 2 for instance, are irrational. An irrational number expressed in decimal form never ends or repeats but continues to infinity. Thus, there can never be a last digit of pi.

The symbol π was first by the mathematician William Jones in 1706 and was popularized by another mathematician, Leonhard Euler. They chose π, the Greek equivalent of the Latin letter p, because it is the first letter of the word periphery. Π, by the way is not pronounce “pie” in Greek but “pee”, just like our p. I don’t think that international “pee” day would be nearly so appealing.

Although the symbol for pi is relatively recent, the concept is very old. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about it. Pi is even mentioned in the Bible.

23 He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits[o] to measure around it. 24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit. The gourds were cast in two rows in one piece with the Sea. (1 Kings 7:23-24)

Properly speaking, the line around the “Sea” should have been 31.5 cubits but the ancient Hebrews were very knowledgeable about geometry and measuring techniques were crude.

There is no particular reason to calculate pi to so many digits. No
conceivable application of pi would possibly take more than 40 digits.
Still, the challenge of calculating pi to the farthest digit possible has been an irresistible one for mathematicians over the years.

Around 250 BC, Archimedes was the first mathematician to seriously try to calculate pi. He used a geometric method of drawing polygons inside and outside a circle and measuring their perimeters. By using polygons with more and more sides he was able to calculate pi with more precision and ended determining the value of pi as somewhere between 3.1408 and 3.1429. Archimedes’s method was used in the west for more than a eighteen hundred years. The Chinese and Indians used similar methods. The best result using the geometric method was the calculation of pi to 38 digits in 1630.

With the development of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660’s it was possible to calculate pi using infinite series, or the sum of the terms of an infinite sequence. The best calculations with these methods were done by the mathematician Zacharias Daze who calculated pi to 200 places in 1844 and William Shanks who spent fifteen years to calculate pi to 707 digits. Unfortunately he made a mistake with the 528 digit. Meanwhile, in 1761 Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that pi is irrational.

Computers made the calculation of pi much faster so pi could be calculated to more digits. ENIAC calculated pi to 2037 places in 1949. This record didn’t last long. A million digits were reached 1970. As of  2011, pi has been calculated to 10,000,000,000,050 places.

Pi is not just used in geometry. There are a number of applications of pi in the fields of statistics, mechanics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and many others. Here is a list of just some of the formulae that use pi. It seems you can find pi everywhere.

With that in mind then, happy pi day! For your enjoyment here are the first thousand digits of pi.

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510
  58209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679
  82148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128
  48111745028410270193852110555964462294895493038196
  44288109756659334461284756482337867831652712019091
  45648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273
  72458700660631558817488152092096282925409171536436
  78925903600113305305488204665213841469519415116094
  33057270365759591953092186117381932611793105118548
  07446237996274956735188575272489122793818301194912
  98336733624406566430860213949463952247371907021798
  60943702770539217176293176752384674818467669405132
  00056812714526356082778577134275778960917363717872
  14684409012249534301465495853710507922796892589235
  42019956112129021960864034418159813629774771309960
  51870721134999999837297804995105973173281609631859
  50244594553469083026425223082533446850352619311881
  71010003137838752886587533208381420617177669147303
  59825349042875546873115956286388235378759375195778
  18577805321712268066130019278766111959092164201989

 

Inferno

November 24, 2014

I absolutely love Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, since after reading this book for the first time, I felt encouraged to try out the original source for their story, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, surely one of greatest works of literature ever. While Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno doesn’t quite rank with Dante it is still an update of Dante that is wonderfully fun to read with a serious exploration of why Hell might exist.

 

 

n3580

 

Allen Carpentier is a science fiction writer who falls out of a window during a convention. Since Carpentier is an agnostic, he is astonished to wake up in Hell where he meets a man named Benito who assures him that Hell is arranged just as Dante described it in the Inferno and that He knows the way out of Hell. Carpentier cannot believe that he is in Hell at first, he believes it to be an artifact created by advanced aliens for their amusement, but as he and Benito make their way through Hell and observe the punishments meted out to sinners, Carpentier has no choice but to concede that he is, indeed in Hell. Then he must wrestle with the problem of why God would create Hell. The punishments seem to be just, but far out of proportion. No sin however great could be worth eternal agony. In the end, he learns who Benito really is and begins to have some idea why Hell might be necessary.

 

The authors largely followed the path described by Dante updating the sins and punishments when it seemed advisable. Thus, polluters are found among the hoarders and wasters, politicians voting along party lines rather than what they believed good for the country among the traitors etc. Like Dante, Niven and Pournelle included their personal causes and pet peeves in the story, damning to Hell the people they seemed to particularly dislike, but then that is part of the fun.

Inferno is a great science fiction/fantasy novel, worth reading. After you are done with it, see if you can’t tackle Dante too.

 


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