Looking back: 2001

The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested that we would have extensive space flight in 2001. That turned out not to be the case. What we did get was the September 11 attacks on the USA and the military conflicts which followed. Nevertheless, NASA commemorated the film with the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Films of 2000 included the superb The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, several good animated films (including Monsters, Inc., Shrek, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), the wonderful French film Amélie, some war movies (Enemy at the Gates was good, but Black Hawk Down distorted the book too much for my taste), the first Harry Potter movie, and an award-winning biographical film about the mathematician John Nash.

In books, Connie Willis published Passage, one of my favourite science fiction novels, while Ian Stewart explained some sophisticated mathematics simply in Flatterland.

Saul Kripke (belatedly) received the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy for his work on Kripke semantics, while Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard (also belatedly) received the Turing Award for their work on object-oriented programming languages (both these pioneers of computing died the following year).

The year 2001 also saw the completion of the Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Armenia, which I have sadly never visited.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2009.

Four ways

Following my review of the book Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, I wanted to say something about different ways of seeking knowledge. I see four fundamental options, which I list below, and illustrate graphically above (click to zoom).

P & P (agreement / synthesis)

I use the formula P & P to reflect the situation where different ways of thinking – such as Science, Art, and Religion – are all telling the same story, and therefore form part of a grand cultural synthesis. This was a characteristic of medieval thought in Europe, where Art frequently told religious stories, and Thomas Aquinas had integrated Religion with the best available Science of his day. Perhaps the pinnacle of the medieval approach is the poetry of Dante Alighieri (depicted above), where Religion and Science are combined together with poetic Art. But that was 700 years ago, of course.

P & Q (complementarity)

I use P & Q to reflect the situation where Science, Art, Religion, etc. are seen as complementary but incommensurable. They all produce their own kind of “truth” (P versus Q). I can study the stars, but independently of that, I can also see them as beautiful. For the case of Science and Religion, Stephen Jay Gould has called this approach non-overlapping magisteria.

The problem with this approach is a kind of fragmentation of life. Art is distinguished from Technology in ways that the ancient Greeks would have found bizarre. Increasingly, people seem to be fighting against this situation.

P > ~P (over-riding)

I use P > ~P to reflect the situation where Science, Art, Religion, etc. are seen as contradictory (P versus not P), but one source of “truth” is seen as superior to, and thus over-riding, the others. This includes the case of religious people who do not believe that observation of the universe can produce valid truth. It also includes scientism, or the belief that Science trumps everything else (a doomed approach, because the foundations of Science are themselves not scientific; they are philosophical and mathematical). I have illustrated this option with the depiction of Isaac Newton by William Blake. This was not intended to be a positive depiction; around about the same time Blake famously wrote “May God us keep / From Single Vision and Newton’s sleep.

The novel Piranesi touches on the problems of scientism: “It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.

P & ~P (contradiction / chaos)

Finally, I use P & ~P to reflect the situation where Science, Art, Religion, etc. are seen as contradictory (P versus not P) but the contradiction is embraced. Your “truth” may be completely contradictory to my “truth,” but that’s OK. The result of this is a kind of postmodernist chaos that seems to me fundamentally unstable. Indeed, former adherents of this approach seem now to be moving towards a new single dominant metanarrative.

So those are four ways of seeking knowledge. Can we indeed live with contradiction? Can the problems of complementarity be resolved? Or is it possible to construct some new synthesis of Science, Art, Religion, and other ways of seeking knowledge? The novel Piranesi raises some interesting questions, but gives no answers, of course.

Artwork from a Florentine artist, Ryan N. McFarlane/U.S. Navy, Auguste Rodin, William Blake, and Ivan Ayvazovsky.

Piranesi: a book review

Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke

I have been reading a fabulous new book called Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The title of her new novel is drawn from the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and it takes place within an enormous and magical flooded House that is reminiscent of some of Piranesi’s art. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Susanna Clarke writes. Adding to the enjoyment of this wonderful novel has been a series of podcasts by Joy Marie Clarkson (starting here).

The Prisons – A Wide Hall with Lanterns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

There are multiple references to the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis. One example is the similarity of the Albatross scene to the one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Another is the way that “Valentine Andrew Ketterley” of “an old Dorsetshire family” (Part 4) suggests Uncle Andrew Ketterley from The Magician’s Nephew: “The Ketterleys are, however, a very old family. An old Dorsetshire family ….”

Working through this novel, I’ve been repeatedly struck with a strange sense of déjà vu. Either Susanna Clarke and I read the same books, or she is revealing to me something that, in an inarticulate way, I already knew. Or possibly both. That said, some of the echoes I see to other books are, no doubt, coincidence.

Some fan art of mine, prompted by the novella Rain Through Her Fingers by Rabia Gale, which is set in a flooded city that Piranesi reminds me of

I am reviewing the novel here on ScientificGems because it has a lot to say about Science, Knowledge, and how to relate to the World: “I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” (Part 2). This recalls something that C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men …” Indeed, Susanna Clarke makes us ask “is Science truly our friend?”

More specifically, Susanna Clarke argues against Reductionist views of the world, and the need to approach the objects of study with Love: “It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.” (Part 7)

One may count the petals of a violet, for example, and grind it up to extract the ionones and anthocyanins responsible for odour and colour. But something has been lost in so doing, and the resulting description does not exhaust everything that can be said about the flower. This problem is amplified for those who do not themselves experience the flower, but rely on descriptions by others.

The novel also references Plato and the importance of universals: “You make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. I do not see that that is the case at all. I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.” (Part 6). As Lewis would say: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!

Expanding on a statement by Tertullian (c. 160–225), Galileo famously said: “[Science] is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.” (Galileo, Il Saggiatore, 1623, tr. Stillman Drake)

This is true, of course, but the House does not speak to us only in mathematical language.

Plato in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

There is much more to be said about this wonderful novel. It concludes with a repetition of the words: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” There is a whole philosophy of Science there.

Goodreads rates the novel as 4.3 out of 5, and reviews of the novel are mostly glowing. The Guardian calls it an “elegant and singular novel” while the LA Review of Books says “a work of intellectual intensity.” It made the top ten fantasy novel list for the 2021 Locus Awards (although it did not win). I’m giving it four and a half stars. And let me say to my readers: “may your Paths be safe … your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.

4.5 stars
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: 4½ stars

Australia Day Honours, 2021

It’s Australia Day again, which means the annual Australia Day honours. Some recipients of note this year in the field of the sciences include:

Congratulations to all four of these outstanding Australians, and to the many others on the list.

For another perspective:

Scientific alignment

I was thinking recently about the alignment (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense) of fictional scientists (see diagram above).

I was brought up on the Famous Five children’s stories by Enid Blyton. Perennially popular, even though flawed in certain ways, these novels star a rather grumpy scientist called Quentin (who had more than a little to do with my own desire to become a scientist). Quentin is certainly altruistic:

‘These two men were parachuted down on to the island, to try and find out my secret,’ said her father. ‘I’ll tell you what my experiments are for, George—they are to find a way of replacing all coal, coke and oil—an idea to give the world all the heat and power it wants, and to do away with mines and miners.’
‘Good gracious!’ said George. ‘It would be one of the most wonderful things the world has ever known.’
‘Yes,’ said her father. ‘And I should give it to the whole world—it shall not be in the power of any one country, or collection of men. It shall be a gift to the whole of mankind—but, George, there are men who want my secret for themselves, so that they may make colossal fortunes out of it.’
” (Enid Blyton, Five On Kirrin Island Again, 1947)

However, Quentin works for no organisation (barring some government consulting work) and draws no regular salary. He is clearly Chaotic Good.

Long before Quentin, Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) created his famous monster out of selfishness and hubris. However, he also desires to make things right, so Frankenstein seems to me Chaotic Neutral.

On the other hand, the experiments of Doctor Moreau in The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells, 1896) mark him as Chaotic Evil. The same is true of the scientist Rotwang in the movie Metropolis (1927), who is the prototype of the evil “mad scientist” of many later films – in contrast to good “mad scientists” like Emmett “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future movies (1985, 1989, 1990).

In all cases, however, there seems to be a bias towards portraying scientists as Chaotic. This is a little strange, because the organisational structures, processes, and rules governing science in the real world are better described as “ordered” or Lawful (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense). Perhaps chaotic characters are just more fun?

Not that everyone follows all the rules and procedures of course. When I take the What is your Scientific Alignment? test, my personal alignment comes out as Neutral Good.

Looking back: 1987

In 1987, my PhD work at the University of Tasmania was beginning to take shape, and I produced a technical report with some preliminary results. I also started a side-project on functional programming language implementation which was to result in the design of a novel computer (a computer, sadly, that was never actually built, although many people joined in on the hardware aspects).

Also in that year, Supernova 1987A became visible within the Large Magellanic Cloud (picture above taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory). The programming language Perl also appeared on the scene, and Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Prompted by a discovery in 1986, physicists held a conference session on high-temperature superconductivity, billed as the “Woodstock of physics.” The immediate benefits were somewhat over-hyped, however.

The usual list of new species described in 1987 includes Fleay’s barred frog from northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland (picture below taken by “Froggydarb”).

In the world of books, James Gleick popularised chaos theory with his Chaos: Making a New Science, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (which Camille Paglia called “the first shot in the culture wars”), and Donald Trump co-wrote Trump: The Art of the Deal (nobody imagined that he would be President one day).

Horror writer Stephen King had a good year, with The Tommyknockers and several other novels being published. The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987, and Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel (it also won the Nebula Award in 1986, the year it was published).

In music, The Alan Parsons Project released their album Gaudi (which included the single below), U2 released The Joshua Tree, and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton released Trio. The Billboard top song for 1987 was the rather silly 1986 single “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Films of 1987 included 84 Charing Cross Road (based on the wonderful 1970 book by Helene Hanff), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Japanese hit A Taxing Woman (マルサの女), sci-fi action film Predator, Australian film The Year My Voice Broke and, of course, the cult classic The Princess Bride (based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman).

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009.

Revising the Metric System

Relationship between the new SI units (image produced using the igraph package of R)

On May 20, a major redefinition of SI (metric) units comes into force. In particular, the second, metre, ampere, mole, kilogram, kelvin, and candela will be defined as follows:

The second (unit of time)

As it is now, the second will be defined using ultra-precise caesium clocks. Specific microwave radiation from caesium atoms is defined to have a frequency of exactly 9.192 631 770 GHz. That is, counting 9,192,631,770 waves will take exactly one second.

The metre (unit of length)

As it is now, the metre will be defined using the speed of light, which is defined to be exactly 299,792,458 metres per second. That is, the metre is the distance travelled by light in one 299,792,458th of a second (where the second is defined as above).

The ampere (unit of electric current)

The definition of the ampere (amp) has been greatly simplified, taking account of the connection between electricity and electrons. The ampere is a coulomb of electric charge flowing past a given point per second, and the charge on a single electron is now defined to be 1.602 176 634 × 10−19 coulombs. Thus an ampere is about 6,241,509,074 billion electrons flowing past a given point in a second.

As a consequence of this new definition, two important natural constants which used to have defined values (the permeability of free space and the permittivity of free space) now have experimentally determined ones. This will require rewriting pretty much every physics and electrical engineering textbook.

The mole (unit of amount of substance)

The mole represents Avogadro’s number of atoms, molecules, or other particles. Previously, Avogadro’s number was defined to be the number of carbon atoms in 12 grams of pure carbon-12. It is now defined to be exactly 6.022 140 76 × 1023.

The kilogram (unit of mass)

Until 2019, the kilogram was defined by the mass of a specific metal cylinder held in Paris. This has been felt to be unsatisfactory for many years. The current definition uses the fact that the energy of a light photon (in joules) is its frequency times Planck’s constant h, which is defined to be exactly 6.626 070 15 × 10−34.

In practice, a Kibble balance will be used to measure weights by balancing them against an electrically produced force. Units derived from the kilogram include:

  • The newton (unit of force): the force needed to accelerate 1 kilogram at a rate of 1 metre per second squared
  • The pascal (unit of pressure): 1 newton of force per square metre
  • The joule (unit of energy): the energy used in applying a force of 1 newton over a distance of 1 metre
  • The watt (unit of power): 1 joule of energy per second
  • The volt (unit of electric potential): the amount of electric potential across a resistance producing 1 watt of heat per ampere of current
  • The ohm (unit of electrical resistance): the resistance which produces 1 ampere of current when 1 volt of electric potential is applied

See also what NIST has to say about the kilogram.

The kelvin (unit of temperature)

Temperature in degrees Celsius was originally measured on a scale with 0 °C being the freezing point of water and 100 °C the boiling point (at standard pressure). The lowest possible temperature turned out to be absolute zero, −273.15 °C. In 1954, the two fixed points on the scale were changed to −273.15 °C (0 kelvins) and the triple point of water, 0.01 °C (273.16 kelvins).

This definition proved unhelpful for calibrating thermometers intended for very high temperatures, and the current definition uses the fact that the average translational kinetic energy (in joules) of a moving atom of a monoatomic ideal gas is (3/2k T, where T is the temperature of the gas in kelvins, and the Boltzmann constant k is defined to be exactly 1.380 649 × 10−23.

The candela (unit of luminous intensity in a given direction)

The definition of the candela remains what it has been, except that it is influenced by the change in definition of the kilogram (and hence the watt). A light source that emits monochromatic yellowish-green light at a frequency of 540 THz (roughly 555 nm wavelength) is taken to emit 683 lumens per watt, and a light source that uniformly radiates 1 candela in all directions has a total luminous flux of 4π lumens (the constant 683 reflects the human ability to perceive light). The lux is a lumen per square metre.

The dream

When the metric system was first introduced, the metre was defined in terms of the world (1/10,000,000 of the distance between the Equator and the North Pole, measured via Paris). Today, the metric system carries that philosophy to its ultimate conclusion, with all units except the candela defined in terms of the universe. Five of the units are defined in terms of fundamental physical constants: the speed of light (first measured by Rømer in 1676), the charge on the electron (first measured directly by Robert A. Millikan in 1909), the Avogadro constant (measured several ways by Jean Perrin around 1910), and the Planck and Boltzmann constants (first defined by Max Planck around 1900).

The redefined metric system is a little difficult to grasp without understanding modern physics, but fortunately most of us will just keep on using exactly the same measurement instruments as we have done for years.

The modern Trivium and the teaching of science

The “trivium” approach to education derives from “The Lost Tools of Learning,” a 1947 speech by scholar and detective story author Dorothy L. Sayers. This approach takes the seven liberal arts (illustrated above), drops the all-important quadrivium, and applies the remainder in a largely metaphorical way. It is an interesting approach, although it inevitably under-emphasises mathematics. The door to Plato’s Academy was marked “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter (Ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω),” and this referred to the most advanced mathematic of his day. I’m not sure that the “trivium” approach to education delivers that level of mathematical knowledge. Then again, does the standard approach?


Science, on the other hand, can be fitted quite well into the “trivium” model. The three stages of this model (largely metaphorical, as noted) are “grammar,” “logic,” and “rhetoric.”

The “grammar” stage (intended for ages 6 to 10 or so) covers basic facts. Science at this level logically includes what used to be called natural history – the close observation of the natural world. Maintaining a nature journal is an important part of this, as are simple experiments, the use of a telescope, collections of objects (rocks, shells, etc.), and simple measurements (such as recording measurements from a home weather station).

Mother and child nature journaling examples from Nature Study Australia Instagram and website

Dorothy L. Sayers has nothing to say about science in the “logic” stage (apart from fitting algebra and geometry here), but the “logic” stage would reasonably include taxonomies, empirical laws, and an exploration of how and why things work the way they do – that is, the internal logic connecting scientific observations and measurements. A degree of integration with history education would provide some context regarding where these taxonomies and laws came from, and why they were seen as important when they were formulated.

Exploring Boyle’s law with a simple apparatus

In the “rhetoric” stage, the “how” and “why” of science would be explored in more detail, along with practical applications and project work (such as entering a science competition, or possibly even collaborating with local academics on a scientific conference paper).

A US Army engineer helps judge high school science projects (photo: Michael J. Nevins / US Army)

I suspect that quite a decent science education programme could be worked out on such a basis. If any reader knows of it having been done, please add a comment.

Eureka! – a book review

Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory

I recently read Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory. The book deals with a topic that has long fascinated me – the birth of science. In a previous post I argued that this took place in the 12th century, the age of cathedrals. Gregory takes the view that it happened with the ancient Greeks, and sees Aristotle and Archimedes as among science’s pioneers. He gives a brief defence of this thesis, and provides a quick summary of Greek scientific thought.

Aristotle and Archimedes

I found this book rather short for the subject (177 pages, including bibliography), was disappointed at the lack of endnotes, and found some annoying errors (the Greeks did not consider the universe small, for example – Archimedes took it to be 2 light-years across). But the big unanswered question is: what went wrong? Gregory includes a list of key people at the back of the book, and if you turn that list into a bar chart, you can see that Greek science basically fell off a cliff around 200 BC.

In a brief two-page section towards the end, Gregory suggests that Christianity was somehow responsible for the decline of Greek science, but that simply makes no sense. Was it instead Roman conquest, beginning around 280 BC? Was it the growing separation of aristocratic philosophy from plebeian technology? Was it the replacement of original science by encyclopaedic systematisation (such as that of Pliny)? It would have been nice to have those questions answered.

Goodreads gives this book 3.4 stars; I was rather less enthusiastic.

Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory: 2 stars