Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Most recent entries
- Milo Yiannopoulos
- Four towers joined together by two bridges
- Peter Foster on Robert Owen
- Quota Bald Blokes and Big Ben
- Less heat and more light
- Antoine Clarke on herding drunk cats
- Antony Flew on the Terrors of Islam
- Bell end?
- Couple photoing their own shadows
- Standing on boxes to interview Irfan
- What is this iceStone device?
- Filling in a Meaningless Triangle near Kensington High Street tube
- A Morris Minor advertising a ping pong night club
- Going to Kings Cross to see gas holders
- The sexiest statue in London?
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Category archive: Science
I’ve not been out much lately, but last Friday night I got to see Perry and Adriana’s new version of indoors. That was the best photo I took, of a drying up cloth.
Click on that to see Adriana’s trousers, of the sort that are presumably threatening all the time to get tighter.
It seems that I am not the only one reminiscing about photos taken nearly a decade ago. The Atlantic is now doing this, with the help of NASA and its Cassini orbiter, and the Cassini orbiter’s oresumably now rather obsolete camera:
Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus (504 kilometers or 313 miles across), is the subject of much scrutiny, in large part due to its spectacular active geysers and the likelihood of a subsurface ocean of liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter has studied Enceladus, along with the rest of the Saturnian system, since entering orbit in 2004. Studying the composition of the ocean within is made easier by the constant eruptions of plumes from the surface, and on October 28, Cassini will be making its deepest-ever dive through the ocean spray from Enceladus - passing within a mere 30 miles of the icy surface. Collected here are some of the most powerful and revealing images of Enceladus made by Cassini over the past decade, with more to follow from this final close flyby as they arrive.
Here is a picture of Enceladus taken on June 10th 2006:
That is picture number 25, or rather, a horizontal slice of it.
Beyond Enceladus and Saturn’s rings, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is ringed by sunlight passing through its atmosphere. Enceladus passes between Titan and Cassini ...
That’s right. Those two horizontal, ever so slightly converging white lines and the edge of the Rings of Saturn.
Picture number 10 is even more horizontalisable:
A pair of Saturn’s moons appear insignificant compared to the immensity of the planet in this Cassini spacecraft view. Enceladus, the larger moon is visible as a small sphere, while tiny Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers across) appears as a tiny black speck on the far left of the image, just below the thin line of the rings.
That one was taken on November 4th 2011.
“Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight-efficient by virtue of their architectures,” commented Bill Carter, manager of the Architected Materials Group at HRL.
“We are revolutionising lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the materials level and designing their architectures at the nano- and micro-scales,” he added.
In the new film released by Boeing earlier this month, HRL research scientist Sophia Yang describes the metal as “the world’s lightest material”, and compares its 99.9 per cent air structure to the composition of human bones – rigid on the outside, but with an open cellular composition inside that keeps them lightweight.
All of which has obvious applications to airplanes:
Although the aerospace company hasn’t announced definite plans to use the microlattice, the film suggests that Boeing has been investigating possible applications for the material in aeroplanes, where it could be used for wall or floor panels to save weight and make aircraft more fuel efficient.
And it surely won’t stop with wall and floor panels.
These are the days of miracle and wonder.
One of the many fine things about the internet – and in particular that great internet business, Amazon – is that you can now easily get hold of books that seem interesting, even if they were published a decade and a half ago. Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, for instance. This was published in 2001. I think it was some Amazon robot system that reckoned I might like it ("lots of people who bought this book you just bought also bought this one"). And I read some Amazon reviews, or whatever, and I did like it, or at least the sound of it, and I duly sent off for it. (I paid £0.01 plus postage.) And now I’m reading it.
Chapter one of Emergence is entitled “The Myth of the Ant Queen”. Here is the part of that chapter that describes the research then being done by Deborah Gordon, into ants:
At the heart of Gordon’s work is a mystery about how ant colonies develop, a mystery that has implications extending far beyond the parched earth of the Arizona desert to our cities, our brains, our immune systems - and increasingly, our technology. Gordon’s work focuses on the connection between the microbehavior of individual ants and the overall behavior of the colonies themselves, and part of that research involves tracking the life cycles of individual colonies, following them year after year as they scour the desert floor for food, competing with other colonies for territory, and - once a year - mating with them. She is a student, in other words, of a particular kind of emergent, self-organizing system.
Dig up a colony of native harvester ants and you’ll almost invariably find that the queen is missing. To track down the colony’s matriarch, you need to examine the bottom of the hole you’ve just dug to excavate the colony: you’ll find a narrow, almost invisible passageway that leads another two feet underground, to a tiny vestibule burrowed out of the earth. There you will find the queen. She will have been secreted there by a handful of ladies-in-waiting at the first sign of disturbance. That passageway, in other words, is an emergency escape hatch, not unlike a fallout shelter buried deep below the West Wing.
But despite the Secret Service-like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. ‘’Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers. She does not decide which worker does what. In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface. It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest - and the colony’s gene pool-to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does.
Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes - witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz - but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies. While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom. The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.
I’m still gazing into the latticework of plastic tubing when Gordon directs my attention to the two expansive white boards attached to the main colony space, one stacked on top of the other and connected by a ramp. (Imagine a two-story parking garage built next to a subway stop.) A handful of ants meander across each plank, some porting crumblike objects on their back, others apparently just out for a stroll. If this is the Central Park of Cordon’s ant metropolis, I think, it must be a workday.
Gordon gestures to the near corner of the top board, four inches from the ramp to the lower level, where a pile of strangely textured dust - littered with tiny shells and husks-presses neatly against the wall. “That’s the midden,” she says. “It’s the town garbage dump.” She points to three ants marching up the ramp, each barely visible beneath a comically oversize shell. “These ants are on midden duty: they take the trash that’s left over from the food they’ve collected-in this case, the seeds from stalk grass-and deposit it in the midden pile.”
Gordon takes two quick steps down to the other side of the table, at the far end away from the ramp. She points to what looks like another pile of dust. “And this is the cemetery.” I look again, startled. She’s right: hundreds of ant carcasses are piled atop one another, all carefully wedged against the table’s corner. It looks brutal, and yet also strangely methodical.
I know enough about colony behavior to nod in amazement. “So they’ve somehow collectively decided to utilize these two areas as trash heap and cemetery,” I say. No individual ant defined those areas, no central planner zoned one area for trash, the other for the dead. “It just sort of happened, right?”
Cordon smiles, and it’s clear that I’ve missed something. “It’s better than that,” she says. “Look at what actually happened here: they’ve built the cemetery at exactly the point that’s furthest away from the colony. And the midden is even more interesting: they’ve put it at precisely the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony and the cemetery. It’s like there’s a rule they’re following: put the dead ants as far away as possible, and put the midden as far away as possible without putting it near the dead ants.” I have to take a few seconds to do the geometry myself, and sure enough, the ants have got it right. I find myself laughing out loud at the thought: it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on standardized tests, conjuring up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment, a solution that might easily stump an eight-year-old human. The question is, who’s doing the conjuring?
It’s a question with a long and august history, one that is scarcely limited to the collective behavior of ant colonies. We know the answer now because we have developed powerful tools for thinking about - and modeling - the emergent intelligence of self-organizing systems, but that answer was not always so clear. We know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant “queen” is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful-in both the group behavior of the social insects, and in the collective human behavior that creates a living city.
I continue to photo white vans. The poshest white van so far is one I photoed today. Here’s the basic photo:
But, this being a posh enterprise, the graphics are a bit thin and polite, and my photo doesn’t help. So here’s a close up what it is:
And here are the services they offer.
Earlier in the day, I also photoed this white van, which also seemed rather posh:
Again, for the same sorts of reasons, here’s a close-up of what it is:
But, although “piano people” suggests people who play pianos, or at the very least tune them, all that these piano people do is move them from place to place, carefully.
There really are a lot of white vans out there.
I’ve been reading Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory, which is about how WW2 was won, by us good guys. Kennedy, like many others, identifies the Battle of the Atlantic as the allied victory which made all the other victories over Germany by the Anglo-American alliance possible. I agree with the Amazon reviewers who say things like “good overview, not much engineering”. But this actually suited me quite well. At least I now know what I want to know more about the engineering of. And thanks to Kennedy, I certainly want to know more about how centimetric radar was engineered.
Centimetric radar was even more of a breakthrough, arguably the greatest. HF-DF might have identified a U-boat’s radio emissions 20 miles from the convoy, but the corvette or plane dispatched in that direction still needed to locate a small target such as a conning tower, perhaps in the dark or in fog. The giant radar towers erected along the coast of southeast England to alert Fighter Command of Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain could never be replicated in the mid-Atlantic, simply because the structures were far too large. What was needed was a miniaturized version, but creating one had defied all British and American efforts for basic physical and technical reasons: there seemed to be no device that could hold the power necessary to generate the microwave pulses needed to locate objects much smaller than, say, a squadron of Junkers bombers coming across the English Channel, yet still made small enough to be put on a small escort vessel or in the nose of a long-range aircraft. There had been early air-to-surface vessel (ASV) sets in Allied aircraft, but by 1942 the German Metox detectors provided the U-boats with early warning of them. Another breakthrough was needed, and by late spring of 1943 that problem had been solved with the steady introduction of 10-centimeter (later 9.1-centimeter) radar into Allied reconnaissance aircraft and even humble Flower-class corvettes; equipped with this facility, they could spot a U-boat’s conning tower miles away, day or night. In calm waters, the radar set could even pick up a periscope. From the Allies’ viewpoint, the additional beauty of it was that none of the German systems could detect centimetric radar working against them.
Where did this centimetric radar come from? In many accounts of the war, it simply “pops up”; Liddell Hart is no worse than many others in noting, “But radar, on the new 10cm wavelength that the U-boats could not intercept, was certainly a very important factor.” Hitherto, all scientists’ efforts to create miniaturized radar with sufficient power had failed, and Doenitz’s advisors believed it was impossible, which is why German warships were limited to a primitive gunnery-direction radar, not a proper detection system. The breakthrough came in spring 1940 at Birmingham University, in the labs of Mark Oliphant (himself a student of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford), when the junior scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, working in a modest wooden building, finally put together the cavity magnetron.
This saucer-sized object possessed an amazing capacity to detect small metal objects, such as a U-boat’s conning tower, and it needed a much smaller antenna for such detection. Most important of all, the device’s case did not crack or melt because of the extreme energy exuded. Later in the year important tests took place at the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the Dorset coast. In midsummer the radar picked up an echo from a man cycling in the distance along the cliff, and in November it tracked the conning tower of a Royal Navy submarine steaming along the shore. Ironically, Oliphant’s team had found their first clue in papers published sixty years earlier by the great German physicist and engineer Adolf Herz, who had set out the original theory for a metal casement sturdy enough to hold a machine sending out very large energy pulses. Randall had studied radio physics in Germany during the 1930s and had read Herz’s articles during that time. Back in Birmingham, he and another young scholar simply picked up the raw parts from a scrap metal dealer and assembled the device.
Almost inevitably, development of this novel gadget ran into a few problems: low budgets, inadequate research facilities, and an understandable concentration of most of Britain’s scientific efforts at finding better ways of detecting German air attacks on the home islands. But in September 1940 (at the height of the Battle of Britain, and well before the United States formally entered the war) the Tizard Mission arrived in the United States to discuss scientific cooperation. This mission brought with it a prototype cavity magnetron, among many other devices, and handed it to the astonished Americans, who quickly recognized that this far surpassed all their own approaches to the miniature-radar problem. Production and test improvements went into full gear, both at Bell Labs and at the newly created Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even so, there were all sorts of delays - where could they fit the equipment and operator in a Liberator? Where could they install the antennae? - so it was not until the crisis months of March and April 1943 that squadrons of fully equipped aircraft began to join the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Soon everyone was clamoring for centimetric radar - for the escorts, for the carrier aircraft, for gunnery control on the battleships. The destruction of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst off the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943, when the vessel was first shadowed by the centimetric radar of British cruisers and then crushed by the radar-controlled gunnery of the battleship HMS Duke of York, was an apt demonstration of the value of a machine that initially had been put together in a Birmingham shed. By the close of the war, American industry had produced more than a million cavity magnetrons, and in his Scientists Against Time (1946) James Baxter called them “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores” and “the single most important item in reverse lease-lend.” As a small though nice bonus, the ships using it could pick out life rafts and lifeboats in the darkest night and foggiest day. Many Allied and Axis sailors were to be rescued this way.
For all his joie de vivre, Jardine is a master drone builder and pilot whose skills have produced remarkable footage for shows like Australian Top Gear, the BBC’s Into the Volcano, and a range of music videos. His company Aerobot sells camera-outfitted drones, including custom jobs that require unique specifications like, say, the capacity to lift an IMAX camera. From a sprawling patch of coastline real estate in Queensland, Australia, Jardine builds, tests, and tweaks his creations; the rural tranquility is conducive to a process that may occasionally lead to unidentified falling objects.
Simply put, if you’ve got a drone flying challenge, Jardine is your first call.
So, Mr Jardine is now flying his flying robots over volcanoes. There are going to be lots of calls to have these things entirely banned, but they are just too useful for that to happen.
When I was a kid and making airplanes out of balsa wood and paper, powered with rubber band propellers, I remember thinking that such toys were potentially a lot more than mere toys. I’m actually surprised at how long it has taken for this to be proved right.
What were the recent developments that made useful drones like Jardine’s possible? It is down to the power-to-weight ratio of the latest mini-engines? I tried googling “why drones work”, but all I got was arguments saying that it’s good to use drones to kill America’s enemies, not why they are now usable for such missions.
Incoming from Michael J:
Katy Perry and dancing Nazi sharks. I guess this is why you stay up for the Superbowl.
Actually I missed KP’s half time performance, but I have it on one of my various TV hard disks. I did stay up until the Superbowl ended, but I found myself only giving it about a third of my attention.
I did tune in at the end. That bizarre catch was fun. But the game ended the way it did because, at any rate in the opinion of all the commentators, the Seattle Seahawks made a horrible mistake. ("I cannot believe that call!") Truly great games are won because of something wonderful, not something horrible. In an ideal world, you want the losers thinking, not: “Oh Shit, What Were We Thinking?!?!? We’ll have nightmares about that for the rest of our lives.” You want them thinking: “Well, there was nothing we could have done about that.” And the winners can spend the rest of their lives remembering that they did it, not that the other guys did it for them.
And then this morning there was this:
6 1 6 . 6 6 | . 4 W 4 W 1 | 1 . 1wd 6 6 6
That’s the last three overs of the England Second Eleven‘s batting effort against the South Africa Second Eleven. I love how you can now follow these bizarrely obscure games. Ben Stokes, who has been having a rough time of it of late, is the one hitting six of those seven sixes at the end, and finishing on 151 not out (off 86 balls) , out of 378-6. Perhaps someone in the England First Eleven (recently crushed by Australia in a triangular warm-up tournament) will get hurt during the forthcoming World Cup, and Stokes will be inserted into their team. Such is the romance of sport.
Finally, here is a piece by cricket boffin Ed Smith, about how having fun is very important. Because of fun, Alexander Fleming invented penicillin, etc. But the real reason for fun is that having fun is fun. It’s articles like this that cause insane parents to send their children to Fun Classes.
I shouldn’t mock. It’s a good piece. And fun is what this blog here is mostly about.
Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.
This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):
Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon. They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.
It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.
It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.
Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.
Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.
So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.
The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.
The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C. Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.
This article confirms not one but two of my medical prejudices, which is double nice. Experts have their uses, one of which is to tell you that you have been right all along about something they’ve only just discovered.
The article is about artificial sweeteners, and this is how it ends:
What does this all mean?
1. Our gut bacteria matters a lot. Some guts can withstand artificial sugars well and others can’t. It stands to reason that, as we learn more about the uniqueness of our own microbiome, those of us who want to lose weight would be well served by diets that are tailored to the way our body and its biomic mini-me processes sugar.
2. Artificial sweeteners are pervasive and some people still can lose weight and enhance their health while consuming them. But since we now know that, on balance, they seem to be more bad than good, moderating how much we consume might be smart, too.
3. The study suggests that if people replace artificial sugars with real sugars or cut it out, their biomes could change in a way that contributes to the restoration of normal glucose tolerance over time, all other things being equal.
So, artificial sweeteners have a tendency to be very bad for you. That’s prejudice of mine number one. But, they may not be bad for you because, and this is prejudice of mine number two, people vary, physically. There is not just the one way of being healthy. There are a minimum of several, and what is harmless or even beneficial for you and to those like you may be very bad for other sorts of people.
The basic reason I came to think that artificial sweeteners might be bad for me was, to begin with, pure rationalisation of the fact that I have always thought that they taste disgusting, compared to sugar. “Diet” stuff, as a general rule, tasted, to me, horrible compared to regular stuff. In particular, Diet Coke tasted like that pink liqued they make you gargle with at the dentist. I started out believing that Diet Coke is bad for you because I wanted it to be, and I wanted the Regular Coke that I have always chosen when coking up to be less bad. But the more I thought about that early frisson of (literally) distaste, the more I came to believe that my at first merely wishful thinking actually did make some sense. Sugar really is somewhat more natural than most sweeteners, or so I assume, and we are more likely to be creatures that can handle sugar, even if not in the quantities that life now offers.
Plus, about five years ago, my niece told me that aspartame (which she said is an evil chemical used to make evil non-sugar) is evil. Rubbish says Big Aspartame. But I reckon, for some people, it is evil.
While rootling around in the www like it was about 2003, I found this piece, dating from 2009, which was all about this apparently pretty but otherwise unremarkable abstract picture:
In case you don’t already know what is going on here, the big story here is that the blue bits and the green bits are the same colour. What colour your eyes see something as depends on the other colours in the immediate vicinity.
The writer linked to above found this graphic here, which you can too if you do a bit of scrolling down.
If you saw this around 2009, or something similar around 2003, then apologies for the repetition. That early period of blogging, just after 2000, will always seem to me like a fleeting golden age, when everything of this sort was being discovered and passed on for the very first time. Because we could. Before, we couldn’t. Now, we could. But now (as in now), most of this sort of trivia has been in circulation for a decade, and it lacks the impact it once had. We bloggers must find new things to say, to cover for the fact that blogging itself is no longer new. This is not a bad thing.
I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too. Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture. The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation. I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.
Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:
The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility. It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.
Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops. This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.
Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years. What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically. Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.
It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed. Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...
The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad. Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.
This afternoon, The Guru is coming by to reconstruct God, so God (the other one) willing, I will be back in serious computing business by this evening.
When I was recently in Brittany, my hosts supplied me with a state-of-the-art laptop and a state-of-the-art internet connection. These last few days, without God (my one) and having to make do with Dawkins (my obsolete and clunky little laptop, the thing I am typing into now), I have felt less connected to the world than I did in Brittany. I am connected, after a fashion. But Dawkins is so slow and clunky that I have been doing only essentials (like finding out about England being hammered in the ODI yesterday), and checking incoming emails, and shoving anything however bad up here once every day. It’s like I’ve regressed to about 2000.
I have managed to put up a few pictures here, in God’s absence. But Dawkins’ screen makes these pictures look terrible. I am looking forward to seeing God’s version of these pictures and hope they will be greatly improved compared to what I am seeing now.
Thank God (the other one) I haven’t been depending on God (my one) for music. As I have surely explained here many times, one big reason I prefer CDs (and separate CD players scattered around my home) to all this twenty first century computerised music on a computer is that if God goes wrong, as he just has, I don’t lose music. I also have music concerts recorded off of the telly, onto DVDs, which I can play on my telly, which is likewise a completely separate set-up to God.
In general, the argument against having everything done by one great big master computer is that when something goes wrong with that master computer, everything else in your life also goes wrong, just when you may need those things not to. One of the things that willgo wrong, rather regularly, with your all-in-one master computer is when this or that particular one of its excessively numerous functions becomes seriously out of date. I mean, if it has a vacuum cleaner included, what happens if vacuum cleaners suddenly get hugely better? In Brian world, all I have to do is get another new and improved vacuum cleaner, and chuck out the old one. In all-in-one master computer world, you are stuck with your obsolete vacuum cleaner. Or, if you can, you have to break open your all-in-one master computer and fit a new vacuum cleaner, and probably also lots of other new stuff to make sure the new vacuum cleaner works, which buggers up a couple of your other functions that used to work fine but which no longer work fine. Or at all. I prefer to keep things simple, and separate.
Something rather similar applies with how to handle (the other) God. That is another arrangement you don’t want to have running the whole of your life for you either. It’s okay if you do God for some of the time and keep Him in his place, but you want scientists telling you about science, doctors about medicine, and your work colleagues about your work, and so on. If, on the other hand, absolutely everything in your life, and worse, everything in the entire world you live in, is controlled by ((your version of) the other) God, everything is very liable to go to Hell. (Aka: Separation of Church and State. Aks: don’t be a religious nutter.)
I have my own particular take on (the other) God, which is that He is made-up nonsense. But just as wise believers in (the other) God don’t let that dominate their thinking on non-God things, nor do I think that my opinions about (the other) God can explain everything else as well. These opinions merely explain the particular matter of (the other) God being made-up nonsense.
Do not, as they say, put all your eggs in one basket.
Overheard in a TV advert for sweeties:
You can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.
Talking of which, I am now reading Lee Smolin’s book about String Theory. Basic message: It’s a cult. I haven’t yet read him using that actual word, but that’s what he is saying.
I am, of course, not qualified to judge if Smolin is right, but you don’t have to be qualified to express a judgement, and I judge that Smolin is right. And the way I like to learn about new stuff is by reading arguments about it, starting with the argument that says I am right about it. Smolin is basically telling me that my ignorant prejudice that String Theory is one of the current world’s epicentres of the Higher Bollocks is right, although he is careful not to express himself as crudely as I just did, for fear of upsetting his physicist friends, and because, unlike me, he sees some merit in String Theory.
I have known that String Theory was in trouble for some time, because Big Bang Theory’s resident String Theorist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has been having doubts about it. He wanted to switch to something else, but they said: We hired you as a String Theorist and a String Theorist you will remain.
The above link is to a blog I had not heard of before, entitled Not Even Wrong. Not Even Wrong is the title of another book I have recently obtained with has a go at String Theory. I have not yet started reading this.
It’s true. You can’t trust atoms. And grabbing both ends of one and stretching it out into a string doesn’t change that. It makes it worse.
From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):
Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort. To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing. Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.
The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions. They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity. These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin. Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought. Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions. And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete. These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.
Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria. Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate. In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate. This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.
It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice. But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria. This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.
Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff. Probably both. I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete. But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.
I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how. Now, I have a much better idea. The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.