19 NOV 2013 by ideonexus

 The Selfish Gene as a New Perspective on an Old Hypothesis

It is Darwin's theory, but a story told from the gene's point of view.
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The selfish gene theory is Darwin's theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognized and delighted in. It is in fact a logical outgrowth of orthodox neo-Darwinism, but expressed as a novel image. Rather than focus on the individual organism, it takes a gene's-eye view of nature. It is a different way of seeing, not a different theory. In the opening pages of The Extended Phenotype, I explained this using the metaphor of the Necker cube.

This is a two-dimensional pattern of ink on paper, but it is perceived as a transparent, three-dimensional cube. Stare at it for a few seconds and it will change to face in a different direction. Carry on staring and it will flip back to the original cube. Both cubes are equally compatible with the two-dimensional data on the retina, so the brain happily alternates between them. Neither is more correct than the other. My point was that there are two ways of looking at natural selection, the gene's angle and that of the individual. If properly understood they are equivalent; two views of the same truth. You can flip from one to the other and it will still be the same neo-Darwinism.

I now think that this metaphor was too cautious. Rather than propose a new theory or unearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts. The Necker cube model is misleading because it suggests that the two ways of seeing are equally good. To be sure, the metaphor gets it partly right: 'angles', unlike theories, cannot be judged by experiment; we cannot resort to our familiar criteria of verification and falsification. But a change of vision can, at its best, achieve something loftier than a theory. It can usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare. The Necker cube metaphor misses this completely. It captures the idea of a flip in vision, but fails to do justice to its value. What we are talking about is not a flip to an equivalent view but, in extreme cases, a transfiguration.

15 MAR 2013 by ideonexus

 Einstein's "Biggest Blunder"

The story of how Einstein's belief in a static Universe prompted him to introduce a fudge-factor in his Theory of Relativity, the Cosmological Constant.
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For much of the modern era, scientists followed Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton in believing the cosmos to be eternal and unchanging. But in 1917, when Albert Einstein applied his theory of relativity to space-time as a whole, his equations implied that the universe could not be static; it must be either expanding or contracting. This struck Einstein as grotesque, so he added to his theory a fiddle factor called the "cosmological constant" that eliminated the implication and held the universe still.

It was an ordained priest who took relativity to its logical conclusion. In 1927, Georges Lemaître of the University of Louvain in Belgium worked out an expanding model of the universe. Reasoning backward, he proposed that at some definite point in the past it must have originated from a primeval atom of infinitely concentrated energy. Two years later, Lemaître's model was confirmed by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who had observed that the galaxies everywhere around us were receding. Both theory and empirical evidence pointed to the same verdict: The universe had an abrupt beginning in time.


Einstein overcame his metaphysical scruples about the big bang not long before his death in 1955, referring to his earlier attempt to dodge it by an ad hoc theoretical device as "the greatest blunder of my career."

29 JAN 2013 by ideonexus

 The Problem with the Term "Music Theory"

"Theory" implies facts and scientific understanding through observation and testing. Music is an art, filled with idiosyncrasies, and no hard rules.
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Music Theory. You will forgive me for turning, as I always do in moments of intellectual want, to my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which defines the word "theory" as, and we quote, "The analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another." My friends, few words offer as much rational solace as does the word "theory." Examining the plausibility of a theory demands that we analyze facts, reason logically, think objectively, and examine comprehensively. Having done so, we will assumably arrive at a conclusion that is the end product of a process of scientific method, which is itself defined as, "Principle and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." Ergo, if something is a theory, it is knowable. It's something we can study. It's something we can learn. It's something that is explicable. It's something that is rational. The theory of relativity. The theory of evolution. Game theory. Complex, yes, but concepts that can be understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested.

Music Theory, implied in that compact and oh so innocent-sounding phrase is the idea that there is a knowable, graspable, all-encompassing set of truisms that, once understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested, the very essence of music will stand revealed, it's various elements and expressive content united int oa singularity the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Wrong. Speaking for myself, I dislike the phrase "Music Theory" almost as much as I dislike the phrase "Music Appreciation." What we call "theory," what we call "Music Theory" is in reality a huge and varied syntax, a syntax that deals with the various ways sounds can be arrayed across time to create a musical experience. We don't grasp musical syntax the way we grasp facts and the analysis of the facts. Rather we first learn to distinguish different sonic and temporal phenomenon. Then we come to understand how those phenomenon are interrelated; after which, we can begin to understand how and why we perceive structural integrity and expressive meaning in a given section of music.

Learning musical syntax is very much like learning a language. We start with the rudiments and every so slowly accumulate understanding and insight as we comprehend that language in evermore sophisticated ways. The phrase "Music Theory" implied that there is a science of music, a set of rules and regulations of absolute rights and wrongs that govern what composers can and cannot do as they create a piece of music. Wrong again.

In reality, Music Theory, like music itself, is an art and not a science. Something much more akin to language, with all its idiosyncrasies, quirks, eccentricities, and inexplicable idioms than it is a "body of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method," which is how my web.col defines "science."

18 JAN 2013 by ideonexus

 The Story of How the Universe's Size was Determined

Includes a cautionary tale of Shapely, who helped prove the Sun was not the center of the Universe, but who thought the Milky Way was all the Universe there was without empirical data.
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It was into this fiery climate of the 1920s that the Protestant-raised Hubble, adorned with the cape, cane, and British accent he had adopted while at Oxford, returned after the war. He arrived at the Carnegie Institution of Washington-funded Mount Wilson Observatory outside Pasadena, California, insisting on being called "Major Hubble."^'' Looking through the great Hooker telescope—at one hundred and one inches in diameter and weighing more than one hundred tons it was by far the largest and most powerful scientific instrument in the world—Hubble was able to view the universe with a light-gathering capacity of more than two hundred thousand human eyes.

What he saw changed humanity's view of the universe forever—and would further roil the controversy over science's role in defining the origins of creation. A conservative Baconian observer, Hubble p photographed a small blinking star in the Andromeda nebula that he identntified as a Cepheid variable. This observation would become iconic in its poower.

had in 1912 shown somethina remarkable about Ceoheid vari^^^- -*—had in 1912 shown something remarkable about Cepheid variable stars: The longer their period, the brighter they appeared to be. This made sense. Stars were very faint, and to probe deeply, astronomers began to mount cameras to their telescopes and take very-long-exposure photographs on glass plates so they could capture light from stars that were too faint to see with the human eye. A blinking star that has a longer "on" period deposits more light on the plate than one with a shorter period.

Leavitt's brilliant observation was so selt-evident as to be irrefutable, but no one had noticed it before. The accomplishment was all the more remarkable because Leavitt was not allowed to be part of the scientific staff; she was a "computer"—one of several women hired merely to identify and catalog stars and calculate light curves for the male scientists. She was paid a premium rate of thirty cents per hour, over the usual two bits, because of the high quality of her work.

Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung seized upon Leavitt's discovery to create a means of measuring intergalactic distances. Using inductive reasoning, Hertzsprung determined in 1913 that if two Cepheid variable stars had similar periods but one was dimmer than the other, it was probably farther away. He found Cepheids close enough to Earth to measure the distance to them using statistical parallax and was able to compipare this with their apparent brightness (their brightness as observed from Earth). The resulting formula allowed scientists to measure the distances to all Cepheid variables. These blinking stars became "standard candles' for measuring distance throughout the heavens.

This was an immense discovery, and in 1915 American astronomer Harlow Shapley, a liberal Democrat, used it and Mount Wilson's sixtyinch telescope to map the Milky Way in three dimensions. Shapley's leasurements expanded the known size of the Milky Way severalfold d showed that the sun was not at the center of the galaxy, as had been thought, but was in fact located in a distant outer arm. This overturned the concept of the centrality of humans yet again, and Shapley was celebrated as the greatest astronomer since Copernicus—a title he tiimself helped promote—for having achieved the "over-throw" of the heliocentric universe

In what would become an important cautionary tale for American science—and, by extension, democracy and much of what ails Amerian politics today—Shapley became blinded to reality by his belief that the Milky Way was the entire universe—or maybe his hubris in wanting to believe that he had mapped the whole shebang. He argued that the spiral nebulae seen in the heavens were simply wisps of gas and clouds of dust within the Milky Way, rather than entire "island universes"—galaxies—of their own, as fellow astronomer Heber Cur:is posited. He debated this point with Curtis at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in April of 1920, in an event famously called the Great Debate.

The debate ended in a draw because there wasn't yet enough observational data to draw firm conclusions, but this was partly because Shapley, without realizing it, had stopped using Locke's and Bacon s inductive reasoning to build knowledge from observation and was instead trying to prove his point with a rhetorical argument—an a priori, top-down, Cartesian approach of first principles that had him arguing more like an attorney than a scientist. When his assistant Milton Humason showed Shapley a photographic plate that seemed to indicate the presence of a Cepheid variable in Andromeda, Shapley shook his head and said it wasn't possible. Humason had unimpressive formal credentials—he had been elevated to assistant from a lowly mule driver and had but an eighth-grade education—but it was Shapley's a priori idea that occluded his vision. He took out his handkerchief and wiped the glass plate clean of Humason's grease pencil marks before handing it back.^^ No one realized it at the time, but Shapley's career as a major scientist ended at that moment.

Soon after, Shapley moved on to run the Harvard College Observatory while his rival Edwin Hubble took over the telescope. Adopting th uncredentialed but nevertheless brilliant Humason as his assistant and conservatively adhering to a strict Baconian observational methodology. Hubble identified Cepheids in Andromeda and used them to show that the spiral "nebula," as he called the galaxy, was not part of the Milky Way at all; it was in fact nearly a million light-years distant—more than three times farther away than the diameter of Shapley's entire known universe. The Great Debate was settled, and Hubble became an overnight sensation.

18 JAN 2013 by ideonexus

 Einstein's Cosmological Constant

He put the constant into his theory to keep the Universe static, but observations demonstrated it was expanding, so he changed his theory to match the evidence.
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Georges Lemaitre was a pudgy, pinkish Belgian Jesuit abbe—a Catholic priest—who also happened to be a skilled astronomer. Lemaitre had noticed that Einstein's general theory of relativity would have implied that the universe was expanding but for a troublesome little mathematical term called the cosmological constant that Einstein had inserted into his equations. Lemaitre saw no convincing reason why the cosmological constant should be there. In fact, Einstein himself had originally calculated that the universe was expanding, but he was a theoretician, not an astronomer. When he turned to astronomers for verification of verse existed in a steady state and there was no motion on a grand scale. So in deference to their observational experience, Einstein adjusted his general theory calculations with a mathematical "fudge factor"—the cosmological constant—that made the universe seem to be steady.

Lemaitre had independently been working off the same mathematical principles that Einstein had originally laid out, and in 1927 he wrote a dissenting paper in which he argued that the universe must be expanding, and that if it was, the redshifted light from stars was the result of this expansion. This redshift had been observed by a number of astronomers. but until then there had been no consensus on what the cause could be.

Lemaitre saw Hubble's self-evident observations and clear logic and immediately realized that it confirmed his math and refuted Einstein's general theory. Furthermore, he deduced, if the universe was exppanding equally in all directions, it must have initiated in a massive expcplosion from a single point. This meant to him that the universe is not infnfinitely old; it has a certain age, and that the moment of creation—which I British astronomer Fred Hoyle later mockingly called the "big bang";"—was analogous to God's first command at the beginning of the good abbe's most cherished book, the Bible: Let there he light.

Hubble's meticulously reported logic and observations convinced Einstein that he had been wrong about the cosmological constant. He made a pilgrimage from Germany to Mount Wilson Observatory outside of Pasadena, where he joined Hubble, Humason, Lemaitre, and others tc make a stunning public announcement. Unlike Shapley, Einstein changed his position and removed the cosmological constant from his general theory of relativity, later calling it "the biggest blunder of my life." The universe was indeed expanding.

08 JAN 2013 by ideonexus

 Trivia VS Knowledge

Graffin relates the story of "Vinyl Vermin" who collected trivia about music rather than cultivating opinions on what was good or bad. He relates this to amassing taxonomy knowledge without a theory.
Folksonomies: theory hypothesis trivia
Folksonomies: theory hypothesis trivia
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Have you ever met anyone with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure rock bands? I knew a group of people in Los Angeles who spent their time browsing the used bins at record shops back in the days when music was recorded on vinyl (which is making a comeback these days, even though most kids have never heard anything other than compressed 128-kilobite-per-second digital recordings). Some of these people were so obsessed with obscure bands that they deserved the moniker "vinyl vermin." They collected lists of band names and knew all the rarest albums available. There could be an obscure garage band from England that rest of us would ever have heard of the band, but the vinyl vermin could tell you more about it than you ever wanted to know.

The problem with most vinyl vermin, I've found, is that they let their knowledge of trivia overwhelm their judgment. Despite their encyclopedic learning, I can't recall having a single discussion with them about whether any of the bands were actually any good. Maybe a band that released just five hundred copies of an album was an undiscovered gem, or maybe the music was so bad that no other record company would hire it to make another album. I never knew what most of the vinyl vermin thought about the qualities of musical groups or genres, because they never talked about anything other than trivial facts and statistics.

The lesson I learned from the vinyl vermin was that the most important thing about gathering information is what you do with it. The "secret language" of taxonomy might have made me feel special, but words applied to fossil species (or obscure records) didn't satisfy me. Taxonomy is a beautiful art. But without theory behind it, taxonomy amounts to words on a museum label. Even today, new species are being discovered and described at a remarkable rate, and each newly discovered species receives a unique official name. But what does the naming and ordering of species say about their relationship to other species and to us? I wanted wisdom, not just knowledge.

21 JUN 2012 by ideonexus

 Theories Must be Falsifiable

If they are not, they do not speak about reality.
Folksonomies: theory falsifiability
Folksonomies: theory falsifiability
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In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

08 JUN 2012 by ideonexus

 Science Depends on Revolutions Large and Small

Small ones, like the discovery of oxygen and Uranus, that requires thinking in a way to uncover anomalies.
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Scientific development depends in part on a process of non-incremental or revolutionary change. Some revolutions are large, like those associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin, but most are much smaller, like the discovery of oxygen or the planet Uranus. The usual prelude to changes of this sort is, I believed, the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that result therefore require 'putting on a different kind of thinking-cap', one that renders the anomalous lawlike but that, in the process, also transforms the order exhibited by some other phenomena, previously unproblematic.

07 JUN 2012 by ideonexus

 Do Atoms Exist?

This is a question for metaphysics, but the theory of atoms is useful and works in the laboratory.
Folksonomies: metaphysics theory
Folksonomies: metaphysics theory
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The question whether atoms exist or not... belongs rather to metaphysics. In chemistry we have only to decide whether the assumption of atoms is an hypothesis adapted to the explanation of chemical phenomena... whether a further development of the atomic hypothesis promises to advance our knowledge of the mechanism of chemical phenomena... I rather expect that we shall some day find, for what we now call atoms, a mathematico-mechanical explanation, which will render an account of atomic weight, of atomicity, and of numerous other properties of the so-called atoms.

06 JUN 2012 by ideonexus

 Reasons the Dinosaurs Went Extinct

A long list of crazy hypotheses.
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Why Become Extinct? Authors with varying competence have suggested that dinosaurs disappeared because the climate deteriorated (became suddenly or slowly too hot or cold or dry or wet), or that the diet did (with too much food or not enough of such substances as fern oil; from poisons in water or plants or ingested minerals; by bankruptcy of calcium or other necessary elements). Other writers have put the blame on disease, parasites, wars, anatomical or metabolic disorders (slipped vertebral discs, malfunction or imbalance of hormone and endocrine systems, dwindling brain and consequent stupidity, heat sterilization, effects of being warm-blooded in the Mesozoic world), racial old age, evolutionary drift into senescent overspecialization, changes in the pressure or composition of the atmosphere, poison gases, volcanic dust, excessive oxygen from plants, meteorites, comets, gene pool drainage by little mammalian egg-eaters, overkill capacity by predators, fluctuation of gravitational constants, development of psychotic suicidal factors, entropy, cosmic radiation, shift of Earth's rotational poles, floods, continental drift, extraction of the moon from the Pacific Basin, draining of swamp and lake environments, sunspots, God's will, mountain building, raids by little green hunters in flying saucers, lack of standing room in Noah's Ark, and palaeoweltschmerz.