Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

First and second attempts to explain the universe: (1) religion, (2) science

January 10, 2008

Religion was the first systematic attempt to explain the universe comprehensively.  It presented the world as a product of mind or minds, of supernatural agents who could order or disorder nature at will.

Science was the second great attempt to explain the world.  This time explanations were cast in terms of impersonal forces and natural, physical processes, rather than the activities of purposive supernatural agents.

When scientific explanations conflicted with religious explanations, religion invariably lost the battle.  Mostly, theologians retreated to concentrate on social and ethical matters such as spiritual enlightenment, content to leave interpreting the physical universe to the scientists.

Cosmic Jackpot by Paul Davies

Information Patterns – very exciting!

December 10, 2007

Science is all about identifying patterns and then representing those patterns abstractly.  Abstract representations allow us to contemplate the properties of a whole class of things, rather than treating each thing on a case-by-case basis.

For example, long ago people noticed that when an object is lifted and released, it falls down to earth.  It doesn’t matter whether the object is a rock or feather or anything else.  All objects exhibit the same pattern of behavior.

The Internet is all about exchanging information.  Certainly we should be able to identify patterns in that vastness of information.  Thus we are challenged to become information “scientists”: identify patterns in information, create abstract representations of the patterns, and then for each particular instance (i.e. each web document) relate it to an abstract representation.  Once we – the community of web designers – start to do this then we will be able to do some exciting very things.  We will, for example, be able to collect all instances of an information pattern and (1) recognize that they are all of the same class of things, and (2) aggregate, manipulate, and massage the information in ways that make sense for that class of information.

Here is an example of an information pattern: Garlic Lowers [Does Not Lower] Cholesterol

An interventionist God, or a hands-off God?

December 4, 2007

MIT professor Alan Lightman was interviewed on NPR recently (starts at 12:15 minutes into the audio file and goes to 13:36). He said something that I found particularly interesting about two different viewpoints about God. I transcribed part of his talk:

  1. There is a kind of religious belief that is completely consistent with science, and this is if you believe in God, and God can be all powerful, as long as God does not intervene once the Universe is created, as long as God can create the laws of nature and the design of the Universe, as long as God then “sits down” so to speak, then that kind of religious belief is completely compatible with science. What science requires is a set of laws of nature or rules that govern phenomena, that are repeatable, that are predictable, that follow cause-and-effect relations.
  2. If, however, you believe in a God that, from time to time, intervenes and violates the laws of nature, for example, a God that can perform a miracle at this instant, that can make this table start floating for no reason, then that kind of belief is completely incompatible with science because then science cannot then make predictions based upon laws of nature, there is some external agency that can act at will in an unpredictable manner, and that would put scientists out of work. Some people call this the interventionist version of religious belief.

The last thing to be discovered in any science is what the science is really about

November 27, 2007

Mathematician studied for centuries the abstract problem of drawing tangents to curves before Newton finally discovered what the subject really is about — rate of change.

It is a well-founded historical generalization that the last thing to be discovered in any science is what the science is really about.

Men go on groping for centuries, guided merely by a dim instinct and a puzzled curiosity, till at last some great truth is loosened.

An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead

Joint Discoveries Are Common

November 19, 2007

Joint discoveries are quite common in science.

Discoveries are not in general made before they have been led up to by the previous trend of thought, and by that time many minds are in hot pursuit of the important idea.

Examples of joint discoveries:

  • Law of natural selection: Darwin and Wallace
  • Discovery of Neptune: Adams and Leverrier
  • Creation of differential calculus: Newton and Leibniz

An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead

Progress of the History of Thought

November 15, 2007

The progress of science is divided between

  • periods characterized by a slow accumulation of ideas, and
  • periods when, owing to the material of thought that has been patiently collected, some genius by the invention of a new method or point-of-view suddenly transforms the whole subject on to a higher level.

The genius who has the good fortune to produce the final idea which transforms a whole region of thought does not necessarily excel all his predecessors who have worked at the preliminary formation of ideas. In considering the history of science it is both silly and ungrateful to confine our admiration with a gaping wonder to those men who have made the final advances toward a new epoch.

An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead

See what is general in what is particular and what is permanent in what is transitory

October 26, 2007

Consider how all events are interconnected.  When we see the lightening, we listen for the thunder; when we hear the wind, we look for the waves on the sea; in the chill autumn, the leaves fall.  Everywhere order reigns, so that when some circumstances have been noted we can foresee that others will also be present.

The progress of science consists in observing these interconnections and in showing with a patient ingenuity that the events of this ever-shifting world are but examples of a few general connections or relations called laws.  To see what is general in what is particular and what is permanent in what is transitory is the aim of scientific thought.

An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead

The Scientist’s Paradox

September 13, 2007

Scientists collaborate to increase their productivity.

Scientists compete for recognition.

While scientists are competing for recognition, that recognition comes from the very people they are competing against!

So science presents us with the curious paradox of an enterprise that is simultaneously competitive and cooperative.

— Extracted from The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Underneath every revolution lay a zero — and an infinity

September 12, 2007

“Zero is powerful because it is infinity’s twin.  They are equal and opposite, yin and yang.  They are equally paradoxical and troubling.  The biggest questions in science and religion are about nothingness and eternity; the void and the infinite, zero and infinity.  The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion.  Underneath every revolution lay a zero — and an infinity.”

Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

Increasing specks of jelly in the peanut butter shows the arrow of time

August 19, 2007

Suppose you watch two time-lapse video clips. In the first video clip you see progressively more and more specks of jelly in the peanut butter. In the second clip you see less and less specks of jelly in the peanut butter.

Which video clip shows forward direction of time? Which shows time in reverse?

Answer: the first video clip shows forward direction of time.

Initially the jelly and peanut butter were separate, i.e. “ordered”. Over time, as the children make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches more and more specks of jelly get into the peanut butter and there is a greater degree of mixing of the two, i.e. it becomes more “disordered”.

There is a general trend in our world toward increasing disorder, e.g. cars rust, buildings crumble, mountains erode, apples rot, and cream poured into coffee dissipates until it is evenly mixed.

In fact, scientists have created a “law” that states that the disorder of the whole universe is increasing. Over time, all order, structure, and pattern in the universe breaks down, decays and dissipates – the ultimate end point of the universe is a random, featureless, homogenized murkiness. It is this increasing disorder that gives time its arrow, e.g. it is the increasing disorder of the peanut butter which enabled you to know which video clip shows the forward direction of time.

Scientists call this disorder “entropy”, and the law which states that the universe becomes increasingly disordered is called The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

— Extracted from The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker