When Physics Became King – A Book Review (OK, Book Report), part 1

While picking up some books for my dissertation from the science and engineering library, I stumbled across an history book that sounded interesting: When Physics Became King. I enjoy it a lot so far, and hope to remember it, so writing about it seems useful. I also think it brings up some interesting ideas to relate to modern debates, so blogging about the book seems even more useful.

Some recaps and thoughts, roughly in the thematic order the book presents in the first three chapters:

  • It’s worth pointing out how deeply tied to politics natural philosophy/physics was as it developed into a scientific discipline in the 17th-19th centuries. We tend to think of “science policy” and the interplay between science and politics as a 20th century innovation, but the establishment of government-run or sponsored scientific societies was a big deal in early modern Europe. During the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety suppressed the old Royal Academy and the later establishment of the Institut Nationale was regarded as an important development for the new republic. Similarly, people’s conception of science was considered intrinsically linked to their political and often metaphysical views. (This always amuses me when people hope science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye should shut up, since the idea of science as something that should influence our worldviews is basically as old as modern science.)
  • Similarly, science was considered intrinsically linked to commerce, and the desire was for new devices to better reflect the economy of nature by more efficiently converting energy between various forms. I also am greatly inspired by the work of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist and historian of science and technology on this. One area that Morus doesn’t really get into is that the major impetus for astronomy during this time is improving celestial navigation, so ships can more efficiently move goods and enslaved persons between Europe and its colonies (Prescod-Weinstein discusses this in her introduction to her Decolonizing Science Reading List, which she perennially updates with new sources and links to other similar projects). This practical use of astronomy is lost to most of us in modern society and we now focus on spinoff technology when we want to sell space science to public, but it was very important to establishing astronomy as a science as astrology lost its luster. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein also brings up an interesting theoretical point I didn’t consider in her evaluation of the climate of cosmology, and even specifically references When Physics Became King. She notes that the driving force in institutional support of physics was new methods of generating energy and thus the establishment of energy as a foundational concept in physics (as opposed to Newton’s focus on force) may be influenced by early physics’ interactions with early capitalism.
  • The idea of universities as places where new knowledge is created was basically unheard of until late in the 1800s, and they were very reluctant to teach new ideas. In 1811, it was a group of students (including William Babbage and John Herschel) who essentially lead Cambridge to a move from Newtonian formulations of calculus to the French analytic formulation (which gives us the dy/dx notation), and this was considered revolutionary in both an intellectual and political sense. When Carl Gauss provided his thoughts on finding a new professor at the University of Gottingen, he actually suggested that highly regarded researchers and specialists might be inappropriate because he doubted their ability to teach broad audiences.
  • The importance of math in university education is interesting to compare to modern views. It wasn’t really assumed that future imperial administrators would use calculus, but that those who could learn it were probably the most fit to do the other intellectual tasks needed.
  • In the early 19th century, natural philosophy was the lowest regarded discipline in the philosophy faculties in Germany. It was actually Gauss who helped raise the discipline by stimulating research as a part of the role of the professor. The increasing importance of research also led to a disciplinary split between theoretical and experimental physics, and in the German states, being able to hire theoretical physicists at universities became a mark of distinction.
  • Some physicists were allied to Romanticism because the conversion of energy between various mechanical, chemical, thermal, and electrical forms was viewed as showing the unity of nature. Also, empiricism, particularly humans directly observing nature through experiments, was viewed as a means of investigating the mind and broadening experience.
  • The emergence of energy as the foundational concept of physics was controversial. One major complaint was that people have a less intuitive conception of energy than forces, which are considered a lot. Others objected that energy isn’t actually a physical property, but a useful calculational tool (and the question of what exactly energy is still pops up in modern philosophy of science, especially in how to best explain it). The development of theories of luminiferous (a)ether are linked a bit to this as an explanation of where electromagnetic energy is – ether theories suggested the ether stored the energy associated with waves and fields.
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Galileo Did Do Experiments

After finding an old book of mine, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, over winter break, I wanted to follow up on my last post. I’ll say that this post is based almost entirely on that book’s chapter on Galileo, but since I don’t see it summarized in many places, I thought it was worth writing up. It is somewhat in vogue to claim that Galileo didn’t actually perform his experiments on falling bodies, and his writings just describe thought experiments. However, this actually confuses two different experiments attributed to Galileo. Most historians do believe stories of Galileo dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa are apocryphal and come from people confusing what is a thought experiment that Salviati, one of the fictional conversationalists in Two New Sciences, describes doing there, or a relatively unsourced claim by Galileo’s secretary in a biography after his death.

However, Salviati also describes an experiment that Galileo is recognized as having done: measuring the descent of balls of different weights down ramps, which also follow the same basic equation as bodies in free fall, but modified by the angle of slope. I think a few people may doubt Galileo actually completed the ramp experiment, based on criticisms by Alexandre Koyré in the 1950s that Galileo’s methods seemed too vague or imprecise to measure the acceleration. However, many researchers (like the Rice team in an above link) have found it possible to get data close to Galileo’s using the method Salviati describes. Additionally, another historian, Stillman Drake, who had access to more of Galileo’s manuscripts found what appears to be records of raw experimental data that show reasonable error. Drake also suggests that Galileo may have originally kept time through the use of musical tempo before moving on the water clock. Wikipedia (I know, but I don’t have much to go on) also suggests Drake does believe in the Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment. While he may not have done it at that tower, evidently Galileo’s accounts include a description that corresponds to an observed tic that happens if people try to freely drop objects of different sizes at the same time, which suggest he tried free fall somewhere.

Listen to The Message Podcast on Your Long Trips This Weekend

If you are one of the 46.9 million Americans travelling more than 50 miles this weekend, I have an entertainment recommendation for you. Consider listening to a new (and recently finished) science fiction podcast, The Message. Sorry if you were hoping for the pseudo “Is this actually like Serial?” illusion, but I just don’t care about every edgy series trying to make itself seem better by hiding whether or not it is actually fiction. I’d add that marathoning the series is the best way to go. There’s only eight episodes, and aside from the last one, they’re all about 13 minutes (with a minute of intro each show) so it’s a good way to spend 2 hours while travelling. I will add, that if I attempted to listen to this one week at a time, I probably would have quickly lost interest because there just wasn’t much material in each episode to feel hooked. But listening to it for two hours straight, it actually felt like a decently paced radio play and the characters and plot were all compelling enough to make up for some clunky structure. Seriously, I skipped eating lunch or getting gas on the road for an hour because I was halfway through and didn’t want to interrupt it.

Also, against the Wired piece’s concern, it didn’t seem like a super transparent plug for GE products. Unless some of the scientists they mentioned were affiliated to GE in some way, and even then, I wouldn’t find that obnoxious. The science didn’t always make sense, but it didn’t seem like technobabble. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by what seemed to be the diversity of the science team in the universe of the story – there was even a person (Mod, though I’ve also seen the spelling Maud) who went by non-binary pronouns, and the program’s director made it clear that disrespecting them wouldn’t be tolerated. I would love to talk about it more if other people have listened to it.

 

Scientists and “Being Smart”, part 2: “Geekery” and What Happened to Technical Knowledge

For the purposes of this article, I’m treating “nerdiness” and “geekiness” as the same thing. If that bothers you, there’s millions of other pages on the Internet that care about this difference. Also, I’m sort of abusing “technical” here, but bear with me.

I loved Chad Orzel’s quote from last time, and I wanted to dissect one part a bit more:

We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

In particular, I wanted to point this out in the context of a sort of backlash against the idea that nerdiness/geekiness should be embraced as some part of science communication. Here’s the thing that bothers me about those pieces: while our society views specialized knowledge of STEM as less cultured than equally specialized knowledge in the humanities, then it will probably always be seen as intrinsically nerdy just to have studied science and engineering. For argument’s sake, I actually do have something in mind based on comparing courses in different departments at Rice and UVA. As an example of some basic idea of specialized scientific knowledge, I’m thinking of a typical sophomore modern physics class that includes a mostly algebra-based introduction to relativity or single variable quantum mechanics. For a roughly equivalent idea of specialized humanities knowledge,  courses at a similar level include a first course on metaphysics in philosophy and English courses focused on single authors. Quote Chaucer at a cocktail party? Congrats, you’re culturally literate! Mention that quantum mechanics is needed to describe any modern digital electronic device or that GPS requires relativistic corrections? I hate to disagree with someone doing work as cool as Tricia Berry, but sorry, you will almost certainly be considered a nerd for knowing that.

Should we care about this? Yes. It’s the same impulse that lets Martin Eve write off science and engineering open access advocates as just some corporatist movement or maybe just useful idiots of some other cultural force, and not some meaningful aspect of how scientists and engineers themselves want to approach the broader culture. And I don’t think this is new. CP Snow wrote about the “two cultures” over 50 years ago, complaining about the increasing division between literary culture and science and technology. I just think that now instead of ignoring scientists, which was what worried Snow, we now laud them in a way removed from mainstream culture by putting it in some geek/nerd offshoot. We see this in media about science. Scientists in movies are almost never full people with rich emotional and social lives, because, as this review of the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game points out, the convention is nearly always that they are more like machines trying to get along with humans. (I also feel sort of justified in this idea when an English PhD at least partially agreed with me when I argued that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs might count as “Renaissance men” today but culture seems uncomfortable applying that label to contemporary people whose original background was primarily technical.)

As I was writing this, I realized this may be a broadening trend that seems to separate technical knowledge in areas outside of science and engineering from their own related fields. Consider the distinction between how people discuss politics and policy. I know they’re not equivalent, but it seems interesting to me that readings of some theorist mainly approached in senior-level political science or philosophy makes you cultured, but trying to use anything beyond intro economics to talk about policy implementation seems to be unquestionably “wonky”. And I say that as someone with virtually no econ or policy training. Heck, Ezra Klein practically owns the idea of being a wonk, and he’s not an economist.

Over winter break, I got the chance to see a friend from high school who is currently working towards a master’s in public administration. We’re both at about similar stages in our graduate programs and we both talked about what we studied. She had her own deep technical knowledge in her field, but she commented that people often didn’t understand the idea of scientific management as a discipline and didn’t seem to appreciate that someone could actually systematically study team hierarchies and suggest better ways to organize. I think part of that is what I touched on in the first part of my rant and Orzel’s idea that people just seem to think of humanistic studies as just “extensions of normal”. But I also think part of that is some cultural lack of interest in, and understanding of, technical knowledge.

I don’t want to fall into some stereotypical scientist trap and write off ideas of fundamental truths or downplay the importance of ethics, culture, and other things generally considered liberal arts or humanistic. I just think that if Snow were writing today, he might say that intellectual seems to be an even narrower category that now no longer recognizes the idea of doing something with that intellect. And that seems like a real problem.

News Publications without Science Sections

Inspired by Dr. Danielle Lee’s recent Twitter musings that STEM coverage directed towards minority communities is rare, which is compounded by the lower recognition that black scientists, engineers, and technologists get in their professional communities and the lack of STEM-focused coverage in African American media, I was curious to see how other major “thought leader” publications fared.

No Science or Science-Related Sections

JET – Though the website seems more lifestyle-focused than I expected, so maybe this is unfair

The National Review – Okay, their website is confusing, because I see a “Space” tag that doesn’t actually lead anywhere and they evidently have a “Planet Gore” section that is devoted to what they view as climate change hypocrisy. “Human Exceptionalism” is probably notable as the only column that routinely talks about bioethics in mainstream political publications.

No Science Sections, but Tech(nology), Health, or Other Science-Related Sections

The New Republic – Has a Technology section, which mainly seems to exist chronicle technical developments as they relate to politics or the economy

The Atlantic – Has Health and Tech sections, with science stories kind of split between them

EBONY – Has health (subsection of Wellness) and tech (subsection of Life); tech seems more consumer focused

The Daily Beast – has a combined “Tech + Health” section

ABC News – Has Tech and Health sections, and strangely, in that order

CNN – Has Tech and Health sections

MSNBC – Has Health and a “Green” section

NewsOne – Has a Health section

Some surprises

In contrast to ABC, CBS News has a joint Science and Technology section and a separate Health section and NBC News has separate Health, Tech, and Science sections.

Similarly, Fox News has separate TechScience, and Health sections, and I would have expected them to parallel CNN in structure. Also, I’m really surprised that they list Health as the last of those sections since if the stereotype of Fox News watchers/readers as being older holds true, I would expect them to be more interested in health and wellness articles.

Multiversal Fiction is Getting Dandy, Baby

I’m a bit slow to try to write this under the time crunch of beating the Space Dandy finale that premieres at 12:30 AM, so forgive any typos. But I just want to say I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way ideas of multiple universes have been getting used in fiction lately. True, the idea has been mainstream at least since the Star Trek introduced a “Mirror Universe” in the original series episode “Mirror, Mirror”. But typically they’re never a major part of the plot. Star Trek didn’t touch the Mirror Universe again until the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Although, as books go, I thought the His Dark Materials series was a really interesting take on parallel universes and I read that over a decade ago.)

But Space Dandy and two other recent pieces of on-screen fiction seem like a turning point in treating a multiverse as more fully realized setting, not just a plot device. If you’re fuzzy on the details of most episodes, you might wonder why I think the multiverse is an integral element of Space Dandy since it isn’t explicitly talked about much. But if you think a about how strongly the show seem to try to disrupt its own continuity, it makes a lot more sense if you think of many episodes taking place in their own (mostly parallel) universes. Consider the ways these episodes end:

  • In the very first episode, Dandy, all of the Aloha Oe, and the entire planet they were visiting is destroyed when they try to use a faulty secret weapon. The second episode explicitly mentions that the end of the first episode did happen and admits it gives a weak “handwave” about Dandy, Meow, and QT are still here.
  • In the fourth episode, the entire universe ends up zombified (even the narrator!) and it’s stated to be a kind of paradise. In the fifth episode, we go back to seeing a non-zombie Aloha Oe crew.
  • In the seventh episode, some combination of a bomb reacting with an incredibly questionable fuel supply ends up sending Dandy into the far future.  The episode ends with a confused Dandy landing near a giant statue of himself in the style of a Buddha.
  • In the eighth episode, nothing renders crew of the Aloha Oe permanently incapacitated, but the semi-antagonist Dr. Gel ends up sucked into a black hole. He reappears only a few episodes later, no worse for the wear.
  • In the eleventh episode, the being responsible for wiping the crew’s memories earlier reappears and evidently triggers an intergalactic war between various factions of storage media that seemed to heavily imply major disruption we never see.
  • Episode 14, the second season premiere, has Dandy, Meow, and QT meet dozens of their counterparts from parallel universes, and end up dragging them all to their home universe. This seems to result in weird distortions to their universe, and to fix it, they pull one of the cosmic strings to try to send everyone back to their respective universes. This mostly works, although the narrator’s closing mentions that the Aloha Oe crew with the depressed Dandy and the terrifying Meow and QT have now ended up in the universe of the Dandy, Meow, and QT we have been following.
  • In episode 21, it’s explicitly stated that Dandy has died. But the embodiment of strange purgatory like planet he is on sends his consciousness to a universe where hasn’t died yet.
  • Episode 24 introduces us to Dandy’s ex, Catherine, a being from a 4D universe who left Dandy to date Paul, the ruler of a 2D universe. Part of why Catherine left Dandy is that because he actually isn’t the Dandy she knew. It turns out that the nature of warp travel in Space Dandy is more like switching which universe you’re aware you’re in. While 3D warpers don’t realize it, higher dimensional beings like Catherine can see the different universes and know the difference.
  • Episode 25 has an expert witness explain a bit about the nature of Pyonium, which has come up several times in the series. He mentions that Pyonium can “cross dimensions”. It’s also noted that Dandy shows a Pyonium signal and forensics couldn’t detect his DNA.

It’s the reveal of the 25th episode that  seems especially important. We have been following Dandy and co. across multiple dimensions, and this seems to be a key part of who Dandy is, even if he didn’t know it. And it also explains why he may be so important to the antagonists of the show, who also keep reappearing despite their own canonical deaths or disappearances. But these all seem to be important. I bet the finale (which is just starting) is about to take us across the universes and I hope we’re going to deal with the ramifications of all the dimension-jumping we’ve been doing.

EDIT: Sounds like I may be wrong already. A character has already mentioned that using the Pyonium will help people access multiple universes, but it’s talked about as a way to basically control probabilities by choosing which universe you’re in. I hope they go over this more.

“Cosmos” is allowed to have a narrative

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sequel/reboot to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered last week on Fox and there’s a multitude of reactions to it. One of the most common negative reactions focuses on the episode’s relatively long segment on Giordano Bruno. If you really want to learn more about Bruno and the various other figures people relate him to and see one of the clearest criticisms and replies to defenses of the show, I suggest you look at the Renaissance Mathematicus’ post on the issue. (And if you want to learn REAL history of science, I highly suggest you check out the rest of his blog.)

A very religious friend posted concerns from Catholic commentators that Cosmos is attacking religion here. I argue that both just seem to be taking offense and ignore Tyson’s actual narration during and around this segment. At no point does Tyson criticize faith. If anything, it’s a critique of institutions which both blog posts seem to also acknowledge by saying that structures and actors in the Church may be bad, but that doesn’t mean Catholicism itself is bad. I’d argue the bigger takeaway is that Bruno thought others’ God was too small.

Several people have asked why mention Bruno at all in the show. Because the entire point of this first episode was to establish the scale of the Universe and our place in it. Bruno was one of the first Western thinkers to propose a Universe where humanity and Earth and the Sun are all small and not particularly unique with respect to the rest of the cosmos. though he was still off on how that actually worked out, as detailed in the Renaissance Mathematicus link above. To Bruno, that had immense philosophical implications and he was willing to die for them (and the host of other heterodox beliefs he held). Why should we just ignore that? Tyson (and Sagan!) are both big on the idea that science can inform metaphysics, and Western culture seems to have a fear that science will leave life without meaning. It seems perfectly reasonable for the show to mention a person whose cosmology inspired a lot of his own religious and spiritual thought. 

Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0 and one of the co-authors of Science Left Behind, has different criticisms than most about the first episode, saying “Science is cool. Should we care if it’s accurate?” I want to quickly respond to these points, and I’ll go in more depth later. 

  1. The greenhouse effect is in fact different from the idea of global warming, but the greenhouse effect does play a part in the latter.
  2. I kind of cringed too at the reference to a multiverse but considering the language the episode used, I’d say the phrase “many of us suspect [a multiverse]” was chosen precisely because it isn’t an accepted theory.
  3. The first time I watched the episode, I didn’t notice the external sounds in space separate from the soundtrack. It struck me as kind of funny because Tyson would typically destroy any show that did it. He should be held accountable on his own.
  4. The episode did not claim Bruno was more important than contemporary natural philosophers and empiricists and definitely pointed out that he wasn’t a scientist. Bruno’s ideas, though, do fit in well with the idea of understanding our place in the universe, which was the entire point of the first episode, as stated in like the first five minutes.
  5. The age of the universe as 13.8 billion years old was given multiple times, and the introduction to every major historical landmark on the calendar involved Tyson giving both its date on the calendar and a conversion to how many millions or billions of years ago it actually was.