Posts Tagged ‘science’

Wheels within Wheels

June 1, 2015

In the previous post, I left off the history of astronomy with Claudius Ptolemy, the last and greatest of the astronomers of ancient times. It was Ptolemy who brought the science of astronomy to its apex in classical times. In his treatise, the Almagest, as the Arabs came to call it, Ptolemy worked out the geocentric model with the complex system of epicycles that the ancients believed described the universe, along with a catalog of stars and constellations and tables of information on the motions of the planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. So well did Ptolemy do his work that the Almagest was the accepted text on astronomy for over twelve hundred years.

The science of astronomy did not stand still after the time of Ptolemy. The Western Europeans were a little distracted by the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and contributed little to the progress of learning for some centuries. Fortunately the ancient learning was preserved in the Greek East and when the Arabs conquered much of the Middle East in the century after the death of Mohammed, they were able to learn much from the peoples they ruled and soon began to make contributions of their own in science and philosophy. The Arabs translated many Greek texts into Arabic which Western scholars discovered and translated into Latin. The contributions made by the Arabs can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s standard text is known by its Arabic title and that many stars still retain names derived from  Arabic

Throughout the Early Middle Ages, the Muslims translated Greek texts into Arabic and so helped to preserve them until Western scholars could translate them into Latin once things had settled down in the West. The importance of the Arabic contribution can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s book is known by its Arabic title, not to mention that many stars are known by names derived from Arabic; Betelgeuse, Algol, Aldebaran, Deneb, Vega, and many others.

Over time, the Arabs, and later the Europeans, developed better instruments for observing the positions of the stars and planets in the sky and to predict the motions of the planets. As their techniques improved, astronomers were able to revise and update the information on planetary motions collected by Ptolemy, and they also found that more epicycles were needed to explain and predict planetary motions. The Ptolemaic model began to seem increasingly over complicated. The last major revision of the tables of planetary motions was commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile in the thirteenth century. Alfonso, called “the Wise” was known as a patron of many branches of learning and was himself conversant in the science of astronomy. He is supposed to have remarked that if God had consulted him during the creation, he might have suggested a simpler system than the complicated bicycles of Ptolemy. The king almost certainly did not say this, but the sentiment was shared by many who began to believe the universe shouldn’t be so complicated.

Among these was a Polish priest who lived some two hundred years after Alfonso. This priest was named Mikolaj Kopernik, better known by the Latinized version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus was a true renaissance man who was learned in such diverse fields as mathematics, canon law, medicine, economics, classical languages, diplomacy, politics, and astronomy. It is in that last subject that he is remembered today. Copernicus came to realize that understanding the motions of the planets would be much easier if he simply assumed that the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth.



The retrograde motions of the planets could simply be explained by their overtaking the Earth as they orbit the Sun. Copernicus seems to have developed his heliocentric theory by 1514 and spent much of the rest of his life working on his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. Although Copernicus showed the manuscript to his friends and interested scholars, he was reluctant to actually publish his masterpiece for fear of the public ridicule such a radical theory might bring him. It was only after his friends assured him that the book would be favorably received and he was dying that Copernicus agreed to publish De revolutionibus in 1543.

De revolutionibus was favorably received by the few people who actually read it. The fact was that Copernicus’s book was so abstruse and technical that only astronomers and mathematicians could really appreciate and understand it.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

Copernicus’s heliocentric model was not generally accepted for some time. The fact that the assumption that the Sun was at the center of the Solar System made calculating the motions of the planets less complicated did not necessarily made that assumption true and there was good reason not to believe the Earth moved. In fact, the Copernican model did not make the calculations that much less complicated. Like Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus believed that the planets moved in perfect circles and his theory still required some epicycles to agree with observations. It was not until 1610 when Johannes Kepler proposed his first law of planetary motion, that the planets orbit the Sun not in circles that the need for epicycles was finally done away with. The heliocentric model then clearly provided a simpler means of understanding the motions of the planets and so was quickly adopted by most astronomers even though there was not yet clear proof that it was actually true.

Which brings us back to Galileo and the Church. In 1632, the year Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, the heliocentric model was rapidly gaining acceptance, yet from a strictly scientific viewpoint, the Church was quite correct in regarding the model with skepticism, even if it was not correct from any viewpoint to put Galileo on trial, although as I said Galileo himself was mostly to blame for his troubles. And, here I have to ask again, why was the heliocentric theory adopted a century before it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

Scientists like to portray themselves cool, logical, unbiased observers interested only in the facts, that is the results of their observations and experiments. Any hypothesis, no matter how attractive, must be put aside if the observations do not agree with it. In fact, scientists are subject to the same sorts of biases as everyone else and a candid view of the history of science will show many instances when scientists have clung to a hypothesis even when the facts seem to show otherwise. This is not always a bad thing. I would even go further and state that this is often a good thing. Sometimes intuition serves as a better guide to discovering the truth than logic and sometimes finding the truth requires ignoring the facts that seem to point in a certain direction while pursuing an underlying truth.

One of the biases that has proven to be most useful in understanding the nature of the universe we live in is the idea that the universe is, as bottom, a simple place that we can understand. If things get to be overly complicated, it is usually taken as a sign we are moving in the wrong direction and should seek a simpler explanation. This is no scientific reason for believing this is the case, yet this bias has proven to be useful over and over again. Ptolemy’s epicycles became more and more complicated, so astronomers switched to the simpler heliocentric system, and were proven right. Physicists and chemists in the nineteenth century were dismayed to discover more and more chemical elements with no clear pattern, until they discovered that all these elements could be explained by the three particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons found in the atoms of every element. Physicist were then confused by the many sub atomic particles they kept discovered, until they learned that these particles were composed of a handful of still smaller particles called quarks. This is really the essence of science, to find simple patterns to explain complex phenomena and this process requires intuition and imagination as much as it requires logical thinking and careful observation. So, Galileo was right, even when he was wrong.

Jesus’s Appearance

April 29, 2013

I saw this posted on a Facebook group.


I was not aware that the Republican party had any sort of official position on the appearance of Jesus, nor was I aware that Republicans do not believe in science.The picture on the right is not how Science sees Jesus. That picture is a reconstruction of a typical first century Judean male based on skeletal evidence and forensic anthropology. The physical appearance of Jesus is never described in the gospels but we can infer that he did not look in any way unusual or had any particular distinguishing marks.

You can see the trick here. Liberals state that their positions are based on Science. Therefore if you do not agree with them than you do not believe in Science. For example, if you do not believe that man-made global warming is a drastic threat that requires immediate action which might damage the world’s economy and lower living standards for billions. The truth is that it is people on the Left who consistently misunderstand the nature of science. I have said it before. Science is not an infallible Authority. Science is not based upon unquestioned dogma. Science is a method of asking questions about the world around us and getting the answers.

But, as to Jesus’s appearance. It is important to remember that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who lived in Galilee in the first century. The New Testament and especially the Gospels cannot be properly understood without a knowledge and appreciation of the cultural background in which the books of the New Testament were written. It is unfortunate that many generations of Christians have tended to disregard the Jewish heritage of their faith.

Still, the Jesus Christ ought not to be too tied to any one culture or ethnicity. As the Son of God and our Savior, Jesus is universal and can be claimed by all humankind. Thus we have the Northern European Jesus.


Or the Chinese Jesus


Or the African Jesus


The Indian Jesus


And the Native American Jesus


He can be depicted as a Byzantine Emperor.

MA Byzantine Jesus

Or as a humble shepard


Jesus has been depicted in many ways in books, art, in movies and in manga.


So, every culture and ethnic group can claim Jesus as their own. His actual physical appearance is quite irrelevant. What matters most is the message He preached and His death and resurrection.



We’re All Doomed

February 20, 2013

As if the recent near miss by an asteroid and the actual impact in Russia were not enough, we have even more to worry about. Asteroids may be deflected. We could conceivably colonize other planets if something were to happen to the Earth, but what could we possibly do if the whole universe is destroyed? Yet that is a terrifying possibility, if the latest theories on the higgs boson turn out to be true. The higgs boson is believed to be the reason why matter has mass in the universe, and it would seem that the higgs boson is just the right mass to make the entire universe unstable, causing it all to destroy itself. I read the story at yahoo news.

A subatomic particle discovered last year that may be the long-sought Higgs boson might doom our universe to an unfortunate end, researchers say.

The mass of the particle, which was uncovered at the world’s largest particle accelerator — the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva — is a key ingredient in a calculation that portends the future of space and time.

“This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now there’ll be a catastrophe,” Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said Monday (Feb. 18) here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“It may be the universe we live in is inherently unstable, and at some point billions of years from now it’s all going to get wiped out,” added Lykken, a collaborator on one of the LHC’s experiments. [Gallery: Search for the Higgs Boson]

The Higgs boson particle is a manifestation of an energy field pervading the universe called the Higgs field, which is thought to explain why particles have mass. After searching for decades for proof that this field and particle existed, physicists at the LHC announced in July 2012 that they’d discovered a new particle whose properties strongly suggest it is the Higgs boson.

For example, the mass of the new particle is about 126 billion electron volts, or about 126 times the mass of the proton. If that particle really is the Higgs, its mass turns out to be just about what’s needed to make the universe fundamentally unstable, in a way that would cause it to end catastrophically in the far future.

That’s because the Higgs field is thought to be everywhere, so it affects the vacuum of empty space-time in the universe.

“The mass of the Higgs is related to how stable the vacuum is,” explained Christopher Hill, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “It’s right along the critical line. That could either be a cosmic coincidence, or it could be that there’s some physics that’s causing that. That’s something new, which we didn’t know before.”

Strikingly, if the Higgs mass were just a few percent different, the universe wouldn’t be doomed, the scientists said.

Oh, tens of billions of years from now. Well, maybe I won’t worry too much about it after all.


The Deep Hot Biosphere

July 1, 2012

The conventional wisdom concerning oil, gas and coal, or fossil fuels as they are called is that they originated many eons ago as plants and animals that died and were buried. Deep under the surface, their remains were slowly transformed into the carbon compounds that make up coal and petroleum. The evidence for this view is that fossilized remains of life are generally associated with fossil fuels. The conventional wisdom is also that the surface of the Earth is the place where life originated and flourishes while conditions deep under the surface are too hot to support any life.

What if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the petroleum and coal that we depend on did not come from ancient life but instead came from carbon that has been present since the beginning of the Earth? What if under the surface of the Earth there was a whole biosphere of microorganisms? Surface life makes use of the energy of the Sun though photosynthesis. What if the microorganisms under the earth make use of chemosynthesis using the carbon as it is transported toward the surface, and oxygen? In other words, what if fossil fuels are not fossils at all, but a part of the Earth that has been transformed by sub surface life?

This is Thomas Gold’s hypothesis that he presents in his book, The Deep, Hot Biosphere. He makes a very convincing case and his hypothesis, if true, can explain a great many geological phenomena not well understood at present, such as the formation of metal ores in veins, some questions about earthquakes, and others. Gold points out that conditions under the Earth would be far more favorable for the origin of life that the surface. In the final chapter, Gold examines the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. So far, we have not found life on any other planet of the Solar System, but perhaps we are not looking in the right place. The surface of Mars, the Moon and the satellites of the gas giants are all hostile to life, but maybe we should look under the surface. Perhaps deep within Mars there lies the life we have been searching for.

Is the deep, hot biosphere hypothesis true? I couldn’t say not being an expert in this field. However, I will say that Thomas Gold shows himself to be a first class scientist by asking the questions. There has been a tendency in recent years to view science as some sort of final authority with all of the answers. How many times have you heard the latest study viewed as some sort of message from on high, or heard the phrase settled science? This is a misuse of science. Science is not an authority, but a method for asking the questions. Sometimes the most important work a scientist can do is to ask questions that everyone thinks they know the answer to. In this regard, The Deep, Hot Biosphere is an interesting book that is sure to make you think.

Scientists Try to Explain the Fast-than-light Nutrinos

October 18, 2011

Since the apparent discovery of neutrinos that are moving at superluminal speeds, scientists have been trying to come up with explanations for these findings. The most obvious and likely explanation is measurement error.

Among the most recent ideas is a paper invoking Einstein’s supposedly challenged theory of relativity. The OPERA team used GPS satellites to accurately measure the 730-km distance between their detector and the CERN beam where the neutrinos were produced. Yet, according to special relativity, calculations will be slightly different when two observers are moving relative to one another.

Since the satellites were zipping around the Earth, the positions of the neutrino source and the detector changed. According to the paper, the movement would account for a 64 nanoseconds discrepancy, nearly exactly what the OPERA team observes.

A less likely explanation is that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is wrong. In fact, both the theories of Special and General Relativity have been amply proved by experiments and observations. There is at least one good reason to suspect that neutrinos do not regularly travel faster than light.

One of the earliest objections to the faster-than-light interpretation came from an astrophysical observation. In 1987, a powerful supernova showered Earth with light and neutrinos. While neutrino detectors observed neutrinos arriving about three hours before the light, this was due to the lightweight particles getting a head start. Neutrinos, which hardly interact with matter, escaped the exploding stellar core with relative ease while photons, absorbed and re-emitted by the various elements, took longer to flee. If the effect from OPERA were as large as observed, scientists have calculated that the neutrinos should have arrived more than four years in advance of the light.

And we know that electrons do not travel faster than light.

Theoretical physicist Matt Strassler also noted on his blog that the Standard Model’s properties suggest that making neutrinos go faster than light requires electrons to do the same. But if electron neutrinos moved at the speed suggested by the OPERA experiment, then electrons should also travel faster than the speed of light by at least one part in 1,000,000,000, or one billionth. Experiments have established theoretical limits that electrons remain subluminal at a precision down to more than 5 part in a thousand trillion, effectively ruling this scenario out.

So, what is going on? We don’t know, yet. My opinion, which really isn’t worth much, is that if the observations are verified, than superluminal travel will be due to some unique property of the nutrinos, which are odd little particles anyway.

I suppose the consensus is measurement error. Too bad. No warp drive yet.

The Genesis of Science

June 27, 2011

The popular idea of the Middle Ages in Europe is that it was a thousand year period of ignorance and barbarism between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a time of nearly complete intellectual stagnation. Everyone is supposed to have been illiterate with the exception of a few clergymen and the Catholic Church kept a tight rein on all learning,  burning any scholar who dared to have an independent thought or challenge the authority of Scripture.

Historians have recognized for some time that this stereotype is entirely false. The Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages” were, in fact, a time of extraordinary fertility and progress. Many of the concepts and institutions that came to distinguish Western Civilization were developed in this era, especially the beginnings of the intellectual enterprise we call science.

In his book “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam traces the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was then known, through the Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the trial of Galileo. He begins in the very depths the Dark Age, the chaotic 5th to 7th centuries, where even then the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in practical technology with such useful tools as the moldboard plow and the horse collar, which revolutionized agriculture.

The discovery of ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts from the Arabs and Byzantines led to the rise of the Scholastic theologians of the 11th to 13 centuries. The Scholastics, under the influence of Aristotle, established reason as the method for learning about God and His creation. There was some controversy in the Catholic Church about pagan learning but the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason could be reconciled and the Church accepted the ancient learning to the extent that it did not contradict Christian doctrine. With the acceptance of reason as an adjunct to faith, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were prepared to see the natural world around them as the rational creation of a rational God, forming the foundation for later scientific thinking.

The Scholastics did not slavishly follow Aristotle, however. They were capable of observing that he was wrong in some instances and were willing to move beyond him. In fact, some of their ideas about motion and forces were surprisingly modern. Some, especially Roger Bacon stressed the importance of careful observation of the natural world.

With the increased knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance of the 13th to 15 centuries, much of this learning was disregarded and forgotten. The Renaissance Humanists venerated the ancients and so were inclined to denigrate the achievements of their immediate predecessors. The authority of Aristotle and others was more respected than the thoughts of more recent philosophers. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, as the Protestants were not eager to give the Catholic Church any credit.

Still, progress continued and in the last section of his book, Hannam explores the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  He closes with an account of Galileo. Although Galileo was a brilliant scientist who practically invented physics, he owed far more to his medieval predecessors than he was ever willing to admit. As for his troubles with the Inquisition, they had less to do with any Catholic opposition to science and were more due to politics and the folly of implying that the Pope was a simpleton.

The Genesis of Science is worth five stars. The perhaps over long summary that I have given above is only the merest foretaste to this brilliant work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Science and the EPA Administrator

April 27, 2011

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at the Power Shift 2011 conference. She had this to say about the role of science in her administration;

Let’s take a minute to look at a little bit of the road over the past two years. We restored science to its rightful place as the backbone of everything the Environmental Protection Agency does. And that includes the science of climate change. We are using that science to take action on climate change.

No, no, no. Like so many on the Left, Ms. Jackson is using science as an Authority for political action. The problem is that science is not an infallible Authority, but rather is a method for asking the questions. Anyone who states that the science is settled is either misinformed or being deceptive. the science is never settled and any hypothesis in only as good as the last experiment or observation. In this light, I would like to quote the late, great Richard Feynman. At his 1974 Caltech Commencement address he referred to “cargo cult science” and had this to say;

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

If Ms. Jackson were really interested in bringing science to the EPA, she would adopt this skeptical attitude and insist on the most rigorous testing of every assumption or hypothesis that the EPA uses to formulate policy. I don’t see that happening.

The Hidden Reality

April 13, 2011

I’ve been reading, or really listening to  “The Hidden Reality” by Brian Greene. Greene is one of the  scientists who can make advanced science accessible to the general public. There are too few of them left since the passing of Carl Sagan and Stephen J Gould. Anyway, The Hidden Reality is all about the concept of parallel universes or the multiverse. Greene describes all the various kinds of universes that might exist.

It is an interesting book and an intriguing subject. I’m skeptical about the multiverse concept though. The problem is that there is no evidence that any of the various multiverses actually exist. And, given that each universe in a multiverse is self-contained with no means of communicating with one another, it is not likely that we will ever have such evidence. As I said, it is an interesting concept, but unless they can come up with a testable hypothesis about the matter, I don’t think that it can be, strictly speaking, science. You might as well argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

By the way, the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin is infinite. Angels are not composed of matter/energy and do not take up physical space, you see.


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