A crystal to precipitate

Excerpted from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry,  © 2004:

All real scientists exist on the frontier. Even the least ambitious among them deal with the unknown, if only one step beyond the unknown. The best among them move deep into a wilderness region where they know almost nothing, where the very tools and techniques needed to clear the wilderness, to bring order to it, do not exist. There they probe in a disciplined way. There a single step can take them through the he looking glass into a world that seems entirely different, and if they are at least partly correct their probing acts like a crystal to precipitate an order out of chaos, to create form, structure, and direction. A single step can also take one off a cliff.

 

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The Narrow Confines

“One of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought. With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”  ~Albert Einstein (source)

It makes you feel a little sad for him, doesn’t it?

Probe Vertically, See Horizontally

Excerpted from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry,  © 2004:

The greatest challenge of science, its art, lies in asking an important question and framing it in a way that allows it to be broken into manageable pieces, into experiments that can be conducted that ultimately lead to answers. To this requires a certain kind of genius, one that probes vertically and sees horizontally.

Horizontal vision allows someone to assimilate and weave together seemingly unconnected bits of information. It allows an investigator to see what others do not see, and to make leaps of connectivity and creativity. Probing vertically, going deeper and deeper into something, creates new information. Sometimes what one finds will shine brilliantly enough to illuminate the whole world.

A Kind of Perceived Truth

Excerpted from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry,  © 2004:

Indeed, methodology matters more than anything else. Methodology subsumes, for example, Thomas Khun’s well-known theory of how science advances. Kuhn gave the word “paradigm” wide usage by arguing that at any given point in time, a particular paradigm, a kind of perceived truth, dominates the thinking in any science. Others have applied his concept to nonscientific fields as well.

According to Kuhn, the prevailing paradigm tends to freeze progress, indirectly by creating a mental obstacle to creative ideas and directly by, for example, blocking research funds from going to truly new ideas, especially if they conflict with the paradigm. He argues that nonetheless researchers eventually find what he calls “anomalies” that do not fit the paradigm. Each one erodes the foundation of the paradigm, and when enough accrue to undermine it, the paradigm collapses. Scientists then cast about for a new paradigm that explains both old and new facts.

But the process– and progress– of science is more fluid than Kuhn’s concept suggests. It moves more like an amoeba, with soft and ill-defined edges. More importantly, method matters. Kuhn’s own theory recognizes that the propelling force behind the movement from one explanation to another comes from the methodology, from what we call the scientific method. But he takes as an axiom that those who ask questions constantly test existing hypotheses. In fact, with a methodology that probes and tests hypotheses– regardless of any paradigm– progress is inevitable. Without such a methodology, progress becomes merely coincidental.

I bought the book on a whim, then kicked myself for spending money a what I thought would be a very dry exposition about stuffy people with headaches.

My first impulse was the correct one.  The context is broad, the problems fascinating, the writing brilliant.  I would recommend this book for almost anyone.

 

Bluebirds

Bluebirds In My House, by Arnette Heidcamp © 1997, was a fun little book that I’m glad I stumbled across.  The first half is strictly a  naturalist treatise about bluebirds, while the second half is her own personal experience raising two orphaned bluebird fledglings she found abandoned in the nest after the death of their mother.  There are a lot of nice pictures of her little bird buddies, and the blend of autobiography and science was very entertaining.

In the appendix she gives a recipe to fill suet holders.  These can be use to feed not just bluebirds, but any bird that typically eats from those types of feeders, including woodpeckers, chickadees, blue jays, and many others.  Because there aren’t any animal products used in this recipe, it has the unintended benefit of being something vegans and vegetarians can offer in good conscience:

As mentioned earlier, just about all birds love this concoction, taking it for themselves and feeding it to their young. It makes an excellent winter supplement, giving proteins and fats. It’s easy to prepare and the ingredients are readily available.

  • 3-pound can of vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
  • 2 cups peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
  • 5 pounds white flour
  • 2 24-ounce containers cornmeal

Melt the shortening in a large pot until it is liquid, taking care not to allow it to burn.

Add the peanut butter and allow to melt thoroughly, stirring until blended. Add the flour and stir until blended, then add the cornmeal and stir.

Pack into plastic containers about the size of a suet holder and freeze, or stuff into milk cartons and refrigerate to be later cut into slices. Or refrigerate the mixture in large containers and scrape out by the spoonful for placement on a picnic bench, table, or platform feeder. How long the mixture lasts depends upon the number of birds being fed.

NOTE: Other goodies such as raisins, currants, or sunflower or peanut hearts may be added to the mixture.

Charm

The BBC recently posted an article on the science of being charming.  Here, in summary, is how you do it:

  1. Smile
  2. Arch your eyebrows
  3. Mirror other’s body language
  4. Feign interest in their lives

Maybe it’s an English thing, but it was interesting to me that they just assume you’ll have to pretend to be interested in other people.  The article even includes several tips to help you pull it off.

Read the entire article at BBC.com