Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- The outdoor map next to the Twelvetrees Crescent Bridge over the River Lea
- Marc Sidwell on experts
- Guess what this is
- Robots build a bridge
- The Robert Stephenson statue at Euston
- Cruelty to a fake animal – kindness to a fake animal
- Shopping Trolley Spiral beside the River Lea
- An Underground sermon
- Rubbish blogging
- Tim Marshall on the illiberal and undemocratic Middle East
- Opera North’s Ring
- An important game and only a game
- Making blue by copying tarantulas
- An old person television set
- Battersea from Clapham Junction
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Category archive: Science
As regulars here will know, I am interested by the phenomenon of colour. I don’t mean people of colour, and all the arguments around that. I mean the colours of things like paint, walls, modern architecture. Red, blue, green, yellow. Actual colours. (Plus also: black and white.)
So, I was greatly intrigued by a piece that I recently encountered, about how blue tarantula spiders are inspiring techies to make 3D printed blue.
Tarantulas aren’t usually known for having a striking blue color, but the ones that do recently inspired new technology that can produce vibrant, 3D-printed color that will never fade.
Back in 2015, a team of researchers led by the University of Akron marveled at the spiders’ blue hue and concluded that it was created not from pigment but from nanostructures in their hairs. In other words, these tarantulas are blue because of structural color, which is produced through light scattering caused by structures of sub-micrometer size features made by translucent materials.
I love grand histories of everything, which look at the past, present and future of mankind through just the one lens. Weapons. Communications. Spices. Potatoes. That kind of thing. I recently purchased a book called The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. Well, one of the next books I am going to purchase is likely to be a history of the world seen entirely in terms of mankind’s quest for colour - natural and artificial, or, as above, and I suspect very typically, a combination of the two.
Alice Robb writes about the strange relationship between humans and cats:
When a stray cat wandered onto the tracks of a midtown 7 train last month, the MTA halted the entire subway line until the animal was out of harm’s way. At the same time, the U.S. government euthanizes millions of stray cats each year. They’re a disaster for the environment: One conservancy organization has called cats the “ecological axis of evil.” ...
There was no single, obvious reason for cats to have been domesticated, says Robb, like meat, or milk, or fur. They are famously unbiddable. And they can be very nasty to us. So, how did it happen?
As I talked to scientists, it dawned on me that we weren’t necessarily the ones who were driving this relationship. House cats sidled up to our first settlements 10,000 years ago, because of big changes we started making to the environment. All of these animals crept into our settlement and were eating our trash - animals like badgers and foxes, in addition to small wildcats. They got into this new niche and exploited it.
So how did they trick us into feeding them and taking care of them?
For a long time, it was probably just an accident. But there are reasons that cats made the transition, but we don’t have badgers or foxes as pets today. One reason is that cats have a set of physical features that, for completely accidental reasons, remind us of human babies. Cats have big round eyes located right in the middle of their faces, because they’re ambush predators and need good binocular vision. They have little noses, because they don’t hunt by smell. They have round faces because they have short, powerful jaws. This set of features, which is actually just an expression of the way the cat hunts, looks to us like our infants. That gave them a leg up on the competition, and made them an intriguing and charming presence, rather than a straight-up nuisance, like a raccoon.
I always assumed that cats were made welcome by our ancestors because they killed rats and mice, which gobbled up our crops. But, says Robb, cats often can’t be bothered to kill rats, because of all the garbage humans emit.
There’s plenty of garbage for everybody. Cats and rats have been photographed sharing piles of trash. Why would these animals fight and risk their lives, when they could just comfortably graze together?
As for the suppose health benefits of keeping a cat, these, says Robb, are highly dubious.
It all adds up to a pretty good summary of the cat/person relationship.
Today I visited Tottenham, and I intend to return tomorrow, both expeditions having been prompted by these two weather forecasts:
That I have already decided this evening where I will be going tomorrow, and that I already knew last night what I was going to do today, is typical of how I now do these expeditions. Trying to work out, in the morning, where I’ll go that day, given that the day is turning out nice, tends not to work so well. Being old and tired and physically lazy, I have to have an interesting and attractive destination in mind as soon as the day starts, in order to force me out the front door soon enough for the expedition to amount to something.
In this respect, I am turning into my Dad. When I was a kid I used to tease my Dad about all the planning that would go into family expeditions, and he used to justify this with questions starting with the words “What if?” What if, we get into an accident? What if, one of us gets sick? What if, the trains are disrupted? We need a plan capable of taking care of everything. I used to think he was being over-cautious, and that we ought to just get started and deal with problems as and when they happened, which they mostly wouldn’t.
Well, as I get older, I become less good at adapting, by which I mean that I can change a plan in mid plan, but that it takes longer and is more stressful.
But more fundamentally, I now suspect that my Dad may have needed his plan just to get him going at all. Without a plan to drive the expedition forward, with artificially created deadlines and reasonably enticing objectives, maybe he just wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy he needed to lead us forth into the world at all. Like me, he knew that he would be happier if he did get stuck into an expedition, and would be depressed if all he did was sit at home doing this or that amusing but trivial thing. So, he would devise plans to make himself do what he wanted to do. My Dad’s plans were not as he sold them to me, mere precautions. His plans were energisers.
But maybe that’s just me.
Earlier, in 2014, I posting another bit from a Matt Ridley book, this time from The Rational Optimist. I entitled that posting Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science.
Here is another Matt Ridley book bit, on this same subject, of how technology leads science. And it is also from The Evolution of Everything (pp. 135-137):
Technology comes from technology far more often than from science. And science comes from technology too. Of course, science may from time to time return the favour to technology. Biotechnology would not have been possible without the science of molecular biology, for example. But the Baconian model with its one-way flow from science to technology, from philosophy to practice, is nonsense. There’s a much stronger flow the other way: new technologies give academics things to study.
An example: in recent years it has become fashionable to argue that the hydraulic fracturing technology that made the shale-gas revolution possible originated in government-sponsored research, and was handed on a plate to industry. A report by California’s Breakthrough Institute noted that microseismic imaging was developed by the federal Sandia National Laboratory, and ‘proved absolutely essential for drillers to navigate and site their boreholes’, which led Nick Steinsberger, an engineer at Mitchell Energy, to develop the technique called ‘slickwater fracking’.
To find out if this was true, I spoke to one of hydraulic fracturing’s principal pioneers, Chris Wright, whose company Pinnacle Technologies reinvented fracking in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast gas resources in the Barnett shale, in and around Forth Worth, Texas. Utilised by George Mitchell, who was pursuing a long and determined obsession with getting the gas to flow out of the Barnett shale to which he had rights, Pinnacle’s recipe - slick water rather than thick gel, under just the right pressure and with sand to prop open the fractures through multi-stage fracturing - proved revolutionary. It was seeing a presentation by Wright that persuaded Mitchell’s Steinsberger to try slickwater fracking. But where did Pinnacle get the idea? Wright had hired Norm Wapinski from Sandia, a federal laboratory. But who had funded Wapinksi to work on the project at Sandia? The Gas Research Institute, an entirely privately funded gas-industry research coalition, whose money came from a voluntary levy on interstate gas pipelines. So the only federal involvement was to provide a space in which to work. As Wright comments: ‘If I had not hired Norm from Sandia there would have been no government involvement.’ This was just the start. Fracking still took many years and huge sums of money to bring to fruition as a workable technology. Most of that was done by industry. Government laboratories beat a path to Wright’s door once he had begun to crack the problem, offering their services and their public money to his efforts to improve fracking still further, and to study just how fractures propagate in rocks a mile beneath the surface. They climbed on the bandwagon, and got some science to do as a result of the technology developed in industry - as they should. But government was not the wellspring.
As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of eighteenth-century Scotland, reported in The Wealth of Nations: ‘a great part of the machines made use in manufactures ... were originally the inventions of common workmen’, and many improvements had been made ‘by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines’. Smith dismissed universities even as a source of advances in philosophy. I am sorry to say this to my friends in academic ivory towers, whose work I greatly value, but if you think your cogitations are the source of most practical innovation, you are badly mistaken.
The internet is fighting back against … cats!
Cats are colonizers: this is what they do. They have colonized the internet just as they have colonized so many other habitats, always with the help of humans. This is the lesson of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, a new book by conservation scientist Peter P. Marra and travel writer Chris Santella. From remote islands in the Pacific to the marshes of Galveston Bay, Cat Wars traces the various ways in which felines have infiltrated new landscapes, inevitably sowing death and devastation wherever they go.
Perhaps the most famous case of genocide-by-cat is that of the remote Stephens Island in New Zealand. Before the end of the 19th century, it was home to a unique species: the Stephens Island wren. One of only a few species of flightless songbirds, the wren ran low to the ground, looking more like a mouse than a bird. After a lighthouse was built on the island in 1894, a small human settlement was established; and with humans, invariably, come pets. At some point a pregnant cat, brought over from the mainland, escaped and roamed wild. The island’s wrens, unused to facing such a skillful predator, were no match for the feral cats that spread throughout the island. Within a year, the Stephens Island wren was extinct. It would take another 30 years to eradicate the feral cats.
This is not an isolated incident. Cats have contributed to species decline and habitat reduction in dozens of other cases. Because they’re so cute and beloved, we have little conception of — and little incentive to find out — how much damage cats are doing to our environment. When researcher Scott Loss tallied up the number of animals killed by North American housecats in a single year, the results were absolutely staggering: between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals, between 1.3 and 4 billion birds, between 95 and 299 million amphibians, and between 258 and 822 million reptiles.
Most books that get multiple reviews on Amazon get around four stars out of five, on average, because most of the reviews are from admirers and there are just a few from detractors. This book gets a star average of one and a bit.
Another French picture, but this time taken in Paris, by my friend Antoine Clarke (to whom thanks):
That would be La Defense, unless I am much mistaken, that being Paris’s new Big Thing district.
I cropped that photo slightly, to moderate that leaning-inwards effect you get when you point a camera upwards at tall buildings.
The email that brought the above snap to my desk, earlier this month, was entitled “warmer than when you were here last”. When I last visited Paris, it was indeed very, very cold, so cold that water features became ice features (see the first picture there).
Today, Antoine sent me another photo, also suffering somewhat from leaning-inwards syndrome, and also cropped by me, more than somewhat. See right.
Mostly what I think about Antoine’s most recent picture is: What an amazing crane! So very tall, and so very thin. It’s amazing it even stays up, let alone manages to accomplish anything. I don’t remember cranes like that existing a generation ago, but maybe that’s merely because no towers that high were being built in London. Not that Antoine’s crane is in London. It is somewhere in America, but where, I do not know.
I just did a bit of googling for books about cranes, and if my googling is anything to go by, books about construction cranes and their history are a lot thinner on the ground than are construction cranes. When you consider how many tons of books have been written about the buildings that construction cranes construct, it is surprising that so little is written about the mighty machines without which such construction would be impossible.
It reminds me of the analogous profusion of books on the history of science, and the comparative neglect of the history of scientific instruments.
As I think I have written before, one major defect of my blog-posting software is that I do not get an accurate picture of how the final blog posting will look, and in this case, whether there is enough verbiage on the left hand side of this tall thin picture of a tall thin crane, to prevent the picture of the tall thin crane impinging upon the posting below. Hence this somewhat verbose and superfluous paragraph, which may not even have been necessary, but I can’t now tell.
I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government). The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.
But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science. Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77). Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:
The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”
So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time? Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it? There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air. Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?
One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools. The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.
In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.
The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.
When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.
This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.
With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble – they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouse enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modem insurance company. You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated. Not just because there were learned men of science sitting around the table – more formal institutions like the Royal Society supplied comparable gatherings – but also because the coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.
The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function - particularly for memory-related tasks - during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked. Create enough caffeine-abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason. That may itself sound like the self-justifying fantasy of a longtime coffee-drinker, but to connect coffee plausibly to the Age of Enlightenment you have to consider the context of recreational drug abuse in seventeenth-century Europe. Coffee-drinkers are not necessarily smarter; in the long run, than those who abstain from caffeine. (Even if they are smarter for that first cup.) But when coffee originally arrived as a mass phenomenon in the mid-1600s, it was not seducing a culture of perfect sobriety. It was replacing alcohol as the daytime drug of choice. The historian Tom Standage writes in his ingenious A History of the World in Six Glasses:
The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine .... Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved .... Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.
Emerging from that centuries-long bender, armed with a belief in the scientific method and the conviction, inherited from Newtonian physics, that simple laws could be unearthed beneath complex behavior, the networked, caffeinated minds of the eighteenth century found themselves in a universe that was ripe for discovery. The everyday world was teeming with mysterious phenomena – animals, plants, rocks, weather – that had never before been probed with the conceptual tools of the scientific method. This sense of terra incognita also helps explain why Priestley could be so innovative in so many different disciplines, and why Enlightenment culture in general spawned so many distinct paradigm shifts. Amateur dabblers could make transformative scientific discoveries because the history of each field was an embarrassing lineage of conjecture and superstition. Every discipline was suddenly new again.
Benjamin Franklin maps the Gulf Stream
How things like 3D printed blood vessels may be improving education in rich countries
Matt Ridley on how culture leads where genes follow
Matt Ridley on Epicurus and Lucretius
Old photos of Enceladus
Steven Johnson on The Myth of the Ant Queen
A posh white van and a not so posh white van
Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
The uniqueness of our microbiome
An old story about colour perception
Bill Bryson on the miracle of crop rotation
On not letting either God or (the other) God do everything
Confirming my String prejudices
The colour of sound - I now get this because I just experienced it!
A global temperature graph that seems to fit the recent facts
Libeskind doing the saw cut style in Ontario
Dezeen continues to delight
Finding Rover app tracks lost dogs using facial recognition
Why I admire short term weather forecasts but why cricket people don’t
Views from Kings College
BMdotCOM mixed metaphor of the day
Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
Wedding photography (1): The superbness of the weather
Me and the Six Nations under the weather
The Qur’an is not science – science cannot be ignored
Steven Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment
Why I do not share Johnathan Pearce’s admiration for Bjorn Lomborg
What’s up with that?
BMdotCOM Headline of the week
University of California chickens coming home to roost?
Hockey Stick art
Matt Ridley’s demolition of CAGW
Science can relax about the harm done to it by Climategate
“Things appear almost impossible to escape from …”
Animals that like the smell of humans dying
Climate science as make-work for former Cold Warriors
Cats only seem smart and dogs only seem dumb
Cats know more about fluid mechanics than dogs
Funny feline ephemeron
A blog posting linking to a science article
Cool cat that obeys Allen’s Rule
A serious disappointment
Lucky we didn’t go to Lords
Nasa and Gordon Brown both have their uses
Talking about The Hockey Stick Illusion with Bishop Hill
Towers under the weather - and a steam engine steams to the rescue
Stepping forward into the abyss!
Yet more ramblings about Guesswhatgate
Unravelling the puzzle – and making it into a movie
Picture purrfection and a rather good Clive James piece
Old-school media versus (or becoming) new-school media (again)
ClimateGate roars on and Man(n)-made warming is taking on a whole new meaning
What’s up with this?
Link to a list of peer-reviewed papers supporting skepticism of “man-made” global warming
Shadows on rings
Green cats - feral cats - cats murdered in Wales - more than 113 cats in Livingston NJ
Why I vote against AGW
A little archaeology
Friday baby marmoset
Truth is true
Nothing from me here today but something on Samizdata about cannabis
Link to Samizdata piece about arguments from incredulity
The impossibility of God but the possibility of Michael Flatley’s cure and of super-super-flees
How patent lawyers destroyed a mathematician
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
On the nature of the evolution argument
Star and stripe
Man regrows finger
More horizontal thinness
Tatiana the normal tiger
Has global warming stopped?
Better safe than sorry
The cat genome is cool
She’s alive I tell you! Alive!
Big Solar System things
Short picture of a long distance
Don’t be a physics teacher
Not actually a photo of Saturn’s rings
Back lit Billion Monkey lady and back lit Saturn!
The idea that mental illness does not exist
Plastic that conducts heat better
So that’s how you pronounce Csikszentmihalyi
Thomas Edison - from cheat to creator
Alessandro Volta feels electricity on his tongue
The Great Global Warming Swindle debate now begins
Svensmark – for and against
A basic part of the domestic cat’s heritage
On the ideology of the “climate change” debate
New York Times links - owned genes
I am about to become a published photographer
Geek girl I like your thinkings - are nice - I want have sex with it
Something to bore everyone
Blogging takes longer than doing things - a picture - and why does a hot bath make me colder?
Was that you or a tree?
What is a squarry?