Solitary Wanderer

Excerpted from The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, © 1957:

It is curious in how great a degree human progress depends on the individual. Humans, numbered in thousands of millions, seem organized into an ant-like society. Yet this is not so. New ideas, the impetus of all development, come from individual people, not from corporations or states. New ideas, fragile as spring flowers, easily bruised by the tread of the multitude, may yet be cherished by the solitary wanderer.

 

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Insects and Such

This is a little Potter Wasp’s nest I found on our back porch screen.  It’s about the size of your thumbnail.  I rarely see the wasps themselves, but I frequently spot their little nests around and about.  It’s filled with paralysed spiders and a single wasp egg, which will delight you if you’re on the side of the wasps and horrify you if you’ve thrown in with the spiders.

I’ve studied insects as a hobbyist for most of my life.  I love finding and identifying something new, then reading all about it.

But I’ve never had an insect collection.  The idea of seeing something beautiful then killing it to display its corpse always seemed awfully morbid to me.

There are a lot of insects that require close inspection to identify.   Flies and dragonflies are often identified by the way the veins in their wings branch, many beetles require you to see tiny variations in their feet and antennae.  Fortunately for me, insects are cold blooded, so when they require a closer look I simply put them in the refrigerator and let them cool down.  They can’t move when they’re cold, so I have plenty of time to examine them under the magnifying glass, then I set them down in the sun where they warm up and fly away (with quite a tale to tell their little insect buddies).

Poles

There’s a North Pole and a South Pole, but there’s not an East Pole or a West Pole.

It would be very hard to give someone directions if you were standing at the North Pole, because every direction would be South.

If you took a compass to the North Pole, it would point South. Magnetic North is not the same as Axial North. If you took a compass to Magnetic North I like to think that it would spin around and around, but it would probably just try to point down.

If you started at the North Pole and began walking South, eventually you would find yourself walking North again. But if you started at the Equator and began walking East, you would just walk East forever.

That’s kind of disturbing.

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.

 

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.