Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tech allows change?

Why do histories of science discovery include biographies of the discoverer? I found it revelatory when it was pointed out that it was new technology related to glass which allowed the discoveries made via the microscope and telescope.  I feel like I missed this because I was too distracted by text discussing who the discoverers were.

I’m not saying that the lives of the scientists are not worth studying. Discovering, via Keynes, that Newton believed in alchemy is relevant to many questions, the fact that one scientist could do his work because he was wealthy, that another was persecuted while others of his time weren’t due to where he lived, is all worthy of study, for many reasons.

What I am saying is that in trying to cram everything into a textbook, we run the risk of readers getting turned off. I was.

I was.

Most of what I’ve learned about history, and other areas, I’ve learned despite the textbooks.
What if curious children and adults were introduced to the story of science in another way? What if science history was framed by the history of the technology available to the investigators, rather than by the investigators lives?

What if telescopes and microscopes got a chapter, perhaps the same chapter? I didn’t understand it when the ability to see inside of cells was credited to a person rather than to a technology. The person deserves some credit, but since the person was the focus I lost sight of the fact that it was the technology that allowed the insight. Likewise the telescope: Galileo’s place is secure because he used the telescope more effectively than his predecessors, but the larger point, the take away, is that the new technology is what allowed him to see new things.
In an era where science funding is cut, this is not an insignificant point.

There was a Time Magazine special edition that discussed the results of scientific discoveries. The laser, for example, led to new audio/video tech, new eye surgery, and supermarket checkout scanners. This was more helpful for my understanding of the world, or of how science and technology can effect society, than if that discussion had been clogged with names. There was nary a one. So I could focus on the ideas, and I said, "WOW! THAT'S NEAT!"

What if a discussion of modern discoveries and theories was framed around how the cpu --starting with the 4004, say--- allowed calculations previously too complex and lengthy for humans to do? It’s true: in more than one field, calculations that would have taken _teams_ of researchers _years_ to accomplish can now be done in hours or minutes. And in field after field, ---iPhones to mass marketing to the age of the universe to cancer--- this has made all of the difference.

If you want to study how science is done, study how the great scientists worked. But if you want to learn how discoveries changed our lives, focus on the technology. Trying to do both at once confused me and discouraged me. Separating them opened the world to me.

Is it just me?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

petition today!

If you sign it today, you might help stop Trump from taking office.

*The US military is seriously concerned about climate change
*Trump saying that protesters are paid by media
*Trump refusing security briefings
*Trump 3am tweets indicating someone who is too thin skinned to be given the nuclear codes.

Monday, December 12, 2016


It snowed yesterday. I missed it because I was reading. And then I looked out, and it was magical. Partly because, wherever it's cold enough, it's an experience that people share.

Did you know that Christmas trees were celebrated before the time of Christ because these trees remained green despite the snow? That makes evergreen trees magical, too.

Have you ever seen a snow globe? A hollow ball the size of a crystal ball, with a flat base below a clear glass dome, a diorama inside which is a snowy scene when shaken. Ever imagined what it would be like to get inside of one? My friend Peter Samelson does a fine theatrical piece, elegantly simple, in which he creates this image, always a closing piece, because what is more magical than snow?

Magician David Copperfield told Peter that he admired his piece, and a year or two later David premiered a much more elaborate theatrical experience of seeing snow for the first time. It closed David's Broadway show, and has even been quoted in a novel.

Theatrical magic, done as well as David or Peter can do it, can open us to the memories of the beauty of snow even in summer.

It's just as magical to look out the window, remember childhood sledding or wonder if any two snowflakes are the same, when it is snowing and you are indoors. I missed this yesterday.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Societal knowledge

Of course human beings continue to learn more about the world: the ancient Greeks couldn't put a human being on the moon, the germ theory of disease wasn't fully accepted by doctors until, what, a  a century and a half ago?

But we also lose knowledge:
*archological sites give us new knowledge of human origins and the timing of human accomplishment. Bombs obliterate this, as was done in the first US Gulf War a quarter century ago, and more recently in Syria.
*the notion that everything is made up of atoms --which led eventually to the atomic bomb and plastics, amongst many other things--- was first proposed hundreds of years BC: but, by luck,  Democritus's writings were lost, and Plato's (among others) were preserved, all by accident. What if it had been the reverse? (From Charles Van Doren's _History of Knowledge_).
*I read, somewhere, in English, that there are languages that are only spoken by a few senior citizens, that once they die, the language may too.
* So-called primitive people sometimes know that an obscure plant will treat a particular symptom. Pharmaceutical companies investigate this, and it can be the origin of some new wonder drugs. If the peoples, or the plant, go extinct, so does that knowledge.
*The Pinkerton Detective Agency protected the President of the United States before the Secret Service did. The Pinkerton detectives were also involved in a vast array of issues, from labor strikes to investigating fake psychics. So is the burning of their records insignificant?
*Which isn't as bad as the case of the massive scale of records destruction in the Chinese cultural revolution. Historians of China are at a loss: the records of earlier times were systematically destroyed.
*Houdini was one of the highest paid entertainers of his era, and remains an icon 90 years after his death. Too bad he was buried with some of his family correspondence in his coffin.

Can you think of other examples of knowledge that was destroyed, permanently, by accident or on purpose?

(Note: Source: the concept of "lost knowledge" was introduced to me by Peter Burke's _Social History of Knowledge_. I don't know if he discusses any of my examples).