Thursday, December 30, 2010

Newton Jumps the Shark

The telescope made Newton famous and brought him that increase of his acquaintance that he feared. Far from rejoicing in the questions and challenges that other scientists - notably Hooke - posed to his theory of light, he was irritated by them and responded impatiently and rudely. Newton, who had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society a year earlier, now (in 1673) threatened to withdraw his membership.

With his mathematical writings it was the same story. Others questioned his methods, and rather than treating these questions as part of the normal scientific give and take, Newton got offended and claimed he would "let what I write ly by till I am out of ye way." Indeed, he said he was going to put philosophy aside and "prosecute some other subjects."

What were these other subjects that had grabbed Newton's attention? They were two: alchemy and theology.

Newton's obsession with alchemy, which lasted many more years than did his brief fascination with mathematics, seems strange to us from the viewpoint of the 21st century. It helps to remember that two of his known correspondents on the subject were that master experimentalist Robert Boyle and the arch empiricist John Locke. In 1672, the idea that chemical substances contained spiritual principles and could, under the right circumstances, vegetate and grow, was not so obviously unscientific as it appears today.

Newton obtained his alchemical writings from a secret network about which we know very little today. Many alchemists hid their names, publishing under pseudonyms. Newton referred to them in his writings by initials alone. Newton amassed a vast collection of alchemical manuscripts over a period of more than 30 years.

He was not just reading about alchemy, though: he built his own laboratory, with an impressive variety of furnaces to produce the various levels of heat he needed for his experiments. In spite of the length of time he spent on these investigations and his copious notebooks, it is not so clear what his goal in all this was. Producing gold appears very rarely as a target. A more definite goal was something he called "sophic sal ammoniac." At one point in his notes he becomes very excited at the idea that he has succeeded in producing this mysterious substance.

I perfected the ideal solution. That is, two equal salts carry up Saturn. Then he carries up the stone and joined with malleable Jupiter also makes X [a star symbol I can't reproduce here] and that in such proportion that Jupiter grasps the scepter. Then the eagle carries Jupiter up. Hence Saturn can be combined without salts in the desired proportions so that fire does not predominate. At last mercury sublimate and sophic sal ammoniac shatter the helmet and the menstruum carries everything up.

The passage gives you a feel for what alchemical writing was like: coded, allusive, and mysterious. Surely, a man of Newton's intelligence and skills would not have wasted his time for three decades on complete nonsense! To him, it must have meant something: what that was, we can no longer recover.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Newton the Odd Duck

One might have expected that Isaac Newton, country bumpkin newly become scholar, would have been eager to publish his discoveries in science and mathematics and make a name for himself.

One would have been wrong.

Though he wrote up his discoveries in essays in his notebooks, and on occasion seemed to be writing a paper for publication, he avoided disseminating his work to an astonishing, even incomprehensible degree. His invention of infinitesimal methods (calculus), his essay on "The lawes of Motion," his optical experiments, all languished in his desk drawers.

He seems, indeed, to have had little human contact of any kind apart from his long-time roommate, John Wickins, and the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Isaac Barrow. Years later, Wickins described Newton as someone so obsessed with his studies that he often forgot to eat and sleep. On the rare occasions he went to the public dining-hall, he went with "shooes down at Heels, Stockins unty'd, surplice on, & his Head scarcely comb'd." He never, as an adult, had a romantic relationship with a woman.

He was, in short, a nerd.

One might deduce from his lack of interest in publishing his work that he was simply uninterested in fame or in other people's opinions of him.

One would be wrong.

The incident that finally led him to put some of his work out in public view was the publication, in 1668, of a mathematical book of Nicholas Mercator that included the infinite series for log(1 + x). Newton suddenly saw himself being scooped on all his wonderful mathematical discoveries, and hastily put together a treatise on infinite series. He passed this on to Barrow, but forbade him to send it to anyone else. Finally, Newton gave Barrow permission to send the paper on to John Collins, a man who made it his business to facilitate communication among British mathematicians. Only when Collins reacted favorably did Newton allow the paper to be disseminated further. But when Collins and Barrow wanted to publish it as an appendix to Barrow's forthcoming book on optics, Newton drew back.

Thus a pattern was set. Newton would drop hints about his discoveries, begin to write them up, then put them aside and refuse to publish them. But let a challenger appear, and Newton would rush forward to claim priority. So by his own refusal to publish he became embroiled in priority disputes: notably with Leibniz over the calculus and with Hooke over the law of gravity.

Collins and Barrow continued to encourage Newton's mathematical investigations. Barrow asked him to annotate a Latin translation of a Dutch book on algebra, and Collins asked him to derive a formula for calculating the interest on an annuity. Collins wanted to publish Newton's formula, and Newton agreed, "soe it bee without my name on it. For I see not what there is desirable in publick esteeme, were I able to acquire and maintain it. It would perhaps increase my acquaintance, ye thing which I cheifly study to decline." 

Newton's claim to be uninterested in the British pastime of "increasing one's acquaintance," i.e., social climbing, is rather ironic, knowing as we do how tenaciously he was to grasp at fame in the not too distant future.

His mathematical work began to attract notice, but what really brought him to prominence was his invention of the reflecting telescope. Around 1669, his optical studies led him to realize that telescopes built of lenses will always suffer from a blurring due to the fact that different colors of light refract differently. A telescope built with mirrors instead of lenses would not suffer this drawback. Newton's 6-inch long reflector was more powerful than a 6 foot refractor.

The Royal Society, England's scientific society, got wind of the telescope, and, in 1671, Barrow brought it to them. Newton was swept up in a flood of adulation, and sent the Royal Society a paper on his optical investigations. The telescope and the paper brought Newton, finally, into the international scientific limelight.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Faculties of Other Experiences

"But I have wondered if there might not be colleges and faculties of other experiences than yours, and whether even now, in the far corners of other continents, powers not yours are being brought to fruition." Charles Williams, Shadows of Ecstasy

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that those three guys are right.

In Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky, a witch's cabin is inhabited by a invisible creature the witch calls Oswald. At least, she thinks it is. Whenever she puts a fork in amongst the spoons, the drawer rattles, pops open, and the fork leaps over into the correct spot.  If something gets dropped, a dustpan and brush appear and magically sweep things up. If Miss Level (the witch) mixes some salt together with the pepper, Oswald will happily (so she surmises) spend an afternoon sorting the salt grains from among the pepper.

Given the phenomenon Pratchett describes, it's hard to think of any hypothesis that would cover it, other than that of an invisible, intelligent agent. If we had numerous instances, well documented, of such occurrences, we would have to conclude that incorporeal intelligent beings exist.

But we don't.

In Williams's story, there is an uprising of Africans who wield powers not understood by European science. They are able to prolong life far beyond the normal human lifespan. They can exert a sort of mind control on others.

In Williams's day, it might have still seemed possible that some remote group in Africa had developed an alternate "technology," one based in supernatural rather than natural causes. Today, having made contact with numerous such remote groups all over the world, and having discovered no technologies that make effective use of supernatural forces, it's hard to believe that such skills exist anywhere.

It's not that "colleges and faculties of other experiences" don't exist: nearly all human groups make attempts to manipulate the supernatural forces of their systems of belief. It's just that they don't work: appealing to the supernatural is not an effective way of getting things done.

Friday, December 17, 2010

OK, I usually don't like to brag, but it's not often that you get props for being a bookish nerd. Thanks to aNadder, I discovered the BBCs list of 100 books: you're supposed to bold them if you've read them and italicize them if you've partially read them. Here goes:

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

This, the actual BBC list, is quite a bit different from aNadder's list. Whoever did the alterations included some whole series (Eg. Harry Potter, His Dark Materials) on the list, which perhaps make sense (as well as making room for some more books). But, while adding The Chronicles of Narnia, they left on THe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is part of The Chronicles of Narnia, so it's a somewhat incoherent list.

There are very few partially-reads - though to be honest I cheated a bit on this, and left out On The Road, which I started but couldn't get past the first few pages. (And this from someone who War and Peace cover to cover. Unabridged, too.) I also left out Gone With the Wind, which I just started yesterday when I was desperate for something to read, and which I have only read about three pages of.

OK, so maybe I should have written "book addict" instead of "bookish nerd"?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Newton as Grad Student

When we left Isaac Newton, he had just graduated from college - "commenced Bachelor of Arts," as the terminology of the day put it - and obtained a scholarship so that he could continue his studies. He had taken no formal courses and passed no exams. He had pursued a course of study completely his own, with, as far as can be told, no formal instruction or even any significant advice from the faculty of Trinity College. He had, nonetheless, managed to master the most advanced mathematics that was in existence, working his way through Descartes's mathematical works page by painstaking page.

Graduation meant little to Newton - he continued his idiosyncratic studies without concern for recognition or advancement. He pressed on, inventing new techniques to push his mathematical understanding further. He developed infinite series that approximated known functions, and used them to calculate those functions to unprecedented accuracy. He invented infinitesimals, that he called "fluxions," and laid the basis for the differential and integral calculus. He even developed a version of what is now known as "the fundamental theorem of calculus": that differentiation and integration are inverse processes; one undoes what the other does. He had far surpassed anything accomplished by any other mathematician in the world. He was completely unknown, 24 years old, and one year past his college commencement.

As suddenly as he had picked up mathematics, he laid it down and turned to other things. He began his studies of optics and of motion. He bought a prism and began studying the properties of colored light. But the plague struck, and Newton fled to the country to his mother's house in Lincolnshire. He had to wait several years before he could obtain a second prism and perform the experiments that would solidify his theory of light.

He turned to the study of motion, and began an investigation of the properties of circular motion. From this investigation he concluded that the acceleration of the Moon about the Earth was related to the acceleration of an object falling near the Earth by the ratio of their distances squared, "pretty nearly." It was about this time (1666) that the famous apple incident occurred, if it occurred at all.

The years 1665-1666 are called Newton's anni mirabiles, his miraculous years, in which he developed his theory of light, of motion, and of the calculus. In fact, he had only begun the work that would, much later, become fully developed theories. But his accomplishments were nonetheless miraculous. As Richard Westfall puts it,
In 1660, a provincial boy ate his heart out for the world of learning .... Six years later, with no help beyond the books he had found for himself, he had made himself the foremost mathematician in Europe and the equal of the foremost natural philosopher.
For similar experiments on the nature of light, Christiaan Huygens was being sought after by the kings of Europe. As yet, no one knew the name of Isaac Newton, nor what he had accomplished.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Exorcize Your Car!

Your car breaks down: who do you go to? The mechanic, who will try to fix a mechanical flaw, or the priest, who will exorcise the car demons?

According to some people, scientists must exclude supernatural explanations on philosophical grounds. This is known as the principle of methodological naturalism. Interestingly, the claim comes both from scientists, who declare it a philosophical prerequisite for doing science, and from religious folks, who see it as a philosophical bias that prevents scientists from ever recognizing supernatural causes.

A recent paper by the philosophical trio of Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman
suggests that science requires no such bias. Supernatural explanations are not excluded on philosophical grounds; rather, such explanations simply have not worked out in practice. The authors call this view pragmatic methodological naturalism: we look for naturalistic explanations because that type of explanation has been successful in the past. (See also Jerry Coyne's comments on the article here.)

To go back to the car example: I think everyone, whether religious or not, chooses to take the naturalistic route when their car breaks down. It's not a matter of anti-supernatural bias (since the priest does it too, even if he adds a prayer to the procedure), it's just a pragmatic consideration. We have experience with the mechanical approach being successful, as we do not for the exorcism approach. We have reason to believe that we understand pretty well how a car works - or at least the mechanic does - and so we have a theoretical basis on which to expect a naturalistic approach to work. We don't have a similar basis for thinking that getting rid of the car demons will solve the problem. 

I think this is correct: science doesn't need to exclude supernatural explanations from its consideration, it only needs to apply the same criteria to those explanations that it applies to naturalistic ones. At one time, thunder and lightning was thought to be caused by the gods. Now we have a better explanation in terms of electric charges and dielectric breakdown. Supernatural explanations for floods, droughts, illness, the diversity of life, the motion of the planets, and so forth, have likewise been abandoned. The problem is not that supernatural explanations cannot be considered, it's that they just don't work

So why is it that even many scientists think that science must a priori exclude supernatural explanations? As supernatural explanations have been increasingly replaced by natural explanations, proponents of the supernatural have beaten a retreat, and now hide behind some insulating barriers. Boudry &co. point out that, when confronted with example of poor "design," Michael Behe has replied that the Designer's reasons and intentions are unfathomable. For Behe, good design is evidence of a designer but bad design is not counted as contradictory evidence. He is apparently not bothered by the blatant double standard he employs. (Boudry et. al. also mention that this type of immunization strategy is typical of pseudoscience: think of the psychic who, when given a chance to prove that he can bend spoons with his mind under controlled conditions, suddenly finds that the vibes are so bad that he can't perform.)

Rather than offering claims that are demonstrably wrong, then, the proponents of the supernatural have turned to offering explanations that are unfalsifiable. It is not that supernatural claims are intrinsically untestable. Jesus said, "You can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." (Matthew 21:21) That's a testable claim - and it fails the test, every time. So, instead, people offer the sort of explanation that can't be proven wrong, because it is untestable. But these sorts of claims are intrinsically unscientific: if it can't be tested, it's not science. 

The failure of supernatural explanations, and the success of natural ones, has resulted in increasingly crummy versions of supernatural explanation. So much so that many scientists now have the impression that untestable explanations are the only possible form of supernatural explanation. But that's not true: it's just that the testable versions have been tried, and found wanting.