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.

 

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

Fossilized Compassion

This made me happy.  Excerpted from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, ©2003:

Also found at Lake Turkana by (Kamoya) Kimeu was KNM-ER 1808, a female 1.7 million years old, which gave scientists their first clue that Homo erectus was more interesting and complex than previously thought.  The woman’s bones were deformed and covered in coarse growths, the result of an agonizing condition called hypervitaminosis A, which can come only from eating the liver of a carnivore.  This told us first of all that Homo erectus was eating meat.  Even more surprising was that the amount of growth showed that she had lived weeks or even months with the disease.  Someone had looked after her.  It was the first sign of tenderness in hominid evolution.

Ernest

Another excerpt from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, ©2003:

For all his success, (Ernest) Rutherford was not an especially brilliant man and was actually pretty terrible at mathematics. Often during lectures he would get so lost in his own equations that he would give up halfway through and tell the students to work it out for themselves. According to his longtime colleague James Chadwick, discover of the neutron, he wasn’t even particularly clever at experimentation. He was simply tenacious and open minded. For brilliance he substituted shrewdness and a kind of daring. His mind, in the words of one biographer, was “always operating out towards the frontiers, as far as he could see, and that was a great deal further than most other men.” Confronted with an intractable problems, he was prepared to work at it harder and longer than most people and to be more receptive to unorthodox explanations. His greatest breakthrough came because he was prepared to spend immensely tedious hours sitting at a screen counting alpha particle scintillations, as they were known – the sort of work that would normally have been farmed out. He was one of the first to see – possibly the very first – that the power inherent in the atom could, if harnessed, make bombs powerful enough to “make this old world vanish in smoke.”

This is the sort of person kids should be reading about in school. Tenacity and open-mindedness are skills we can all cultivate.