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[ 20041130 ]

Astrophotography as Art

Local Arcturus readers are encouraged to attend an artist's reception for amateur astronomer Doug Zubenel, this coming Friday at 7 PM. Venue is the Cube at Beco, a gallery in the Crossroads, on the northwest corner of 20th & Baltimore (phone + 1 816 582 8997). Not only is it free, but if the weather's any good, he'll have his 'scope set up.

Jay Manifold [1:44 PM]

[ 20041128 ]

Science as Process (III) -- Newton's Hobbies

So, OK, now I've got Andy Cline after me to come up with a part III; he mentioned during our conversation that he was expecting one, and I somehow managed to avoid saying, "Uh, yeah, like what?" -- even while thinking, gee, I really don't know where this is going myself, and I'll be doing good to make it to part II.V, as it were.

When my imagination fails, however, I have that of my readers to draw upon, and God bless Mike Daley for pointing me to James Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton and reminding me that Newton had some decidedly non-scientific pursuits, among them alchemy (!) and what Mike politely refers to as Biblical scholarship.

So while I was talking with Andy, I mentioned a quote from Milton, as quoted by Freeman Dyson, as quoted by me almost two years ago in Nanotechnology, Risk Management, and Institutions, which I wouldn't blame you for not reading: the really important line, from the Areopagitica, is "look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike." (I suggested that Milton had Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the wheat and the tares, in mind when he wrote this.) But I didn't connect it to anything concrete.

Well, there's no more concrete example than Isaac Newton, who was a toddler when the Areopagitica was published; Milton's liberalism earned him imprisonment by both sides in the English Civil War, but his idea -- a free press, and the spirit behind it -- caught on. Had Newton been suppressed for his alchemy or his roll-your-own religion, which to my (limited) understanding was a kind of mystical variant of Judaism, our understanding of optics and gravity and the availability of an excellent new type of telescope would have been indefinitely delayed.

The ecology of memes depicted in the parable of the wheat and the tares does not only operate at a societal level -- it goes on inside the minds of each of us. Condemn a man for his bad ideas, and you lose any good ones he might ever have. Newton's hobbies were bizarre, perhaps contemptible. And thank God nobody shut him down because of them.

Jay Manifold [9:37 PM]

In Xanadu ...

The indefatigable Dr. Eric Flescher of the ASKC used the Yahoo! Group to call my attention (and that of ~120 other people) to Hovering over Titan.

The coordinates of the center of the image (15°S, 156°W) correspond to a point on the surface not far from the center of the side of the moon that always faces away from Saturn; 0° longitude and 0° latitude is the sub-Saturnian point, where Saturn would appear directly overhead if the sky were clear.

The image appears vignetted due to haze, with sharp features at the center fading to tantalizing blurriness near the edges. And due to the high phase angle -- that is, sunlight bouncing almost straight back at the spacecraft, analogous to a Full Moon -- there is no shadow relief; surface features are rendered with a curiously flat appearance, nothing like the evocative images we've seen of some of Saturn's other moons, notably Mimas.

The psychological effect is similar to that of the better images of Mars as seen from Earth, which while not very much like the real thing, nonetheless fire the imagination. Will we find

from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

A river of liquid methane, perhaps? They've got to name it Alph.

Jay Manifold [9:34 PM]

[ 20041126 ]

End of an Era

The subject -- or, rather, the setting -- of one of the earliest posts on Arcturus, Warren's Christmas Tree Farm, is closing after this season (if needed to see the article, anonymous registration is here).

Jay Manifold [5:56 PM]

[ 20041124 ]

Science as Process (II) -- Pseudoscientists as Artisans

In the first post in this series, I pointed out that Mark Moldwin's differentiation of science from pseudoscience uses a context similar to that of industrial process analysis, by locating scientists as "producers" operating between "customers" and "suppliers," with well-defined inputs, outputs, work procedures, and criteria for their work.

Now, in How the West Grew Rich, I read (pp 252-253):

We think of the scientific method as invented by Galileo and Bacon in the early seventeenth century. Their insistence upon observation, experiment, and reason as the path to truth and Galileo's use of experiment to demonstrate the falsity of then-accepted theories were of basic importance. But the use of observation, experiment, and reason easily became part of the artisan's commonsense approach to invention. By itself, Galileo's method neither separated basic and applied science nor professionalized industrial technology. That required two things: first, natural phenomena where human understanding and utilization depended wholly or in part on scientific explanation, and, second, a mode of scientific explanation that could be understood easily, or perhaps at all, only by those specially trained in it.

-- that is, Moldwin's "community of scientists .... [with] the appropriate educational credentials, undergoing peer review of proposed scientific ideas, discussing ideas at scientific meetings and conferences, and presenting results for peer review in respected journals." By contrast, the "scientific hermits" of pseudoscience are more like independent artisans, superseded by the processes of the scientific community:

The natural phenomena were in abundant supply: electricity, electromagnetic waves, genes, and the behavior of atoms and molecules in chemical processes, for examples. The mode of scientific explanation was based on postulating entities and processes that could be observed only indirectly, by their effects, and that could be understood only by trained scientists. It is important to understand why these invisible entities of science could be more useful than the common sense of skilled mechanics and artisans in designing and manufacturing industrial products. After all, for thousands of years, humankind had explained natural phenomena as acts of invisible entities, from leprechauns to gravity to phlogiston to Dalton's atoms. But the invisible entities of scientific explanation had one overwhelming advantage over leprechauns and their companions of myth and fable: experimental test could show that they were nonexistent as well as invisible, as Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated of phlogiston and as the discovery of more elementary particles showed of Dalton's atoms. Constrained as they were by experimental test of their invisible entities, scientific explanations proved to be reliable guides to the commercial development of new processes and products. Unlike the unrestrained inventions of myth and fable, they could not be ignored by industrial firms except at the risk of being displaced by rival firms. But to understand and apply scientific explanation required years of training in the theology of an invisible pantheon of scientific entities. That requirement professionalized industrial science and diminished the role of artisan invention.

By analogy, I suggest that pseudoscientists are "skilled mechanics and artisans," free-lancers crafting cultural artifacts which, while profoundly lacking in practical value, should not be suppressed.

Lest my readers think that I've gone soft in the head, allow me to reassure all of you that I despise pseudoscience as much as any of you. Whatever its content, it is to be always and everywhere rigorously critiqued -- and in some cases, particularly in the historical sciences, its adherents should never be allowed to control the forum where that critique takes place. Indeed, sometimes the best thing to do is ignore the promoters of pseudoscience altogether, lest they attain a superficial legitimacy by gaming the system.

What the pseudoscience-as-artisan meme allows is tolerance, not acquiescence; how it views pseudoscience is as entertainment, not as a threat (and certainly not as legitimate science); and the kind of civil society it furthers is one of enduring freedom and increasing diversity, the subject (if I may say so) of the parable of the wheat and the tares, rather than a legalistic nightmare of (any ideology's version of) political correctness.

Your assignment for Thanksgiving is to be grateful for the spirit that says "lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them."

Jay Manifold [1:52 PM]

Something You Can't Live Without

Namely, a Java applet that recites the digits of p in various languages (yet another tidbit from the ASKC).

Jay Manifold [11:55 AM]

[ 20041123 ]

Stealth Killer Comets (II)

In my post of Sat 30 Oct entitled Stealth Killer Comets, I mentioned an observation a few years back of an asteroid that actually turned out to be a nearly-dormant comet.

Well, now (courtesy of the ASKC discussion board mentioned in the post immediately below this one) there's another one, designated 162P/2004 TU12. It's 14th magnitude, which is to say around 1,600 times too faint to see with the unaided eye -- you'd want about a 12" telescope to have a good chance of spotting it. And it's not going to kill us: NeoDys has it at nearly 77 million kilometers away, and it never gets much closer than that (this source shows it approaching the Square of Pegasus, as seen from Earth). But we must wonder: how many more of these are out there? How close will they get before we see them? Time for that distributed-observing network, led by a brace of dedicated telescopes in orbit.

Jay Manifold [5:31 PM]

Free Real-Time Space Simulation

Spotted on the ASKC Yahoo! group discussion board ...

Celestia is a free real-time space simulation that lets you experience our universe in three dimensions. Unlike most planetarium software, Celestia doesn't confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy. All travel in Celestia is seamless; the exponential zoom feature lets you explore space across a huge range of scales, from galaxy clusters down to spacecraft only a few meters across. A 'point-and-goto' interface makes it simple to navigate through the universe to the object you want to visit.

Jay Manifold [5:30 PM]

Advance in Science Education (II)

Currently tied for #30 on Blogdex, we find disclaimer stickers for science textbooks. A little more snark than I'm entirely comfortable with, but nonetheless illustrative of the difficulties inherent in a government-operated educational system.

Jay Manifold [5:29 PM]

[ 20041122 ]

Productivity-Lowering Software

Frequent contributor Mike Daley sent an e-mail entitled "What Smart Guys Need" to three actual smart guys (Stephen Green, Rand Simberg, and Michael McNeil), plus me, with the following threat: "Here's a timewaster that's going to create an uncontrollable addiction in you guys. Heh! Thanks to KLo at NRO's corner."

I can quit any time. Really.

Jay Manifold [5:29 PM]

Science as Process

A LexisNexis™ search on astronomy-related news finds a 1,700-word article in Skeptical Inquirer in which Mark Moldwin, Assoc Prof of Space Physics in the Earth and Space Sciences Department and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCLA, provides a definition that positively warmed my process-improving heart:

If science is not defined by the scientific method, how can one differentiate between science and pseudoscience? Philosophers of science have long considered this "demarcation" problem (see, for example, Bunge 1984). As a working scientist, I suggest two characteristics of science that can be used to make that distinction. The first deals with the community of scientists, and the second goes to the essence of science--namely the constant testing of any scientific idea against reality. The first, the willingness of scientists to practice as part of the community of science, means having the appropriate educational credentials, undergoing peer review of proposed scientific ideas, discussing ideas at scientific meetings and conferences, and presenting results for peer review in respected journals. Those who attempt to practice outside the scientific community, called "scientific hermits" by Martin Gardner, attempt to avoid a critical assessment of their ideas. What they're attempting to avoid is the second characteristic of science in this discussion: namely, the constant testing of scientific ideas compared to previous understanding and observations. This testing has been described as subjecting an idea to "reality therapy" (Bauer 1992) and allows science to make universal statements agreed upon by all practicing scientists.

I note that "practice as part of the community of science" is very much a process, with entrance criteria ("appropriate educational credentials"), exit criteria ("undergoing peer review of proposed scientific ideas"), and other features of the Deming Process Workbench Model (see Figure 1, page 2; 87 kB *.pdf). And "the constant testing of scientific ideas compared to previous understanding and observations," admirably shortened to "reality therapy," is at the heart of that process, embedded in the "work procedures" of science itself.

The document linked above goes into considerable detail, pointing out that the Deming Workbench may be viewed in three ways: from the viewpoint of the supplier, the customer, or the producer. As Moldwin says in the SI article, what matters is not just what practitioners of would-be science do, but who they do it with:

In trying to clearly differentiate between science and pseudoscience, one often needs to go beyond each field's methodology and look more closely at its sociology and the willingness of its practitioners to constantly compare and test their ideas against our current understanding and observations. Do they allow their work to be scrutinized and criticized by their scientific colleagues? Do they publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals? Have any advances in their field made it into scientific textbooks? The answers to these three questions are often good indicators of whether an area of study belongs in the realm of science or pseudoscience.

So it's not just the producers of science that matter, but what -- and who -- precedes and follows their activity. Kudos to Moldwin for describing another tool for cutting through the you-know-what.

Jay Manifold [5:28 PM]

Advance in Science Education

Regarding a current controversy, A.E.Brain has developed a curriculum, which although promising, seems to be missing some obvious elements, given the institution at which it is to be taught.

And of course I can't help but note that any private school is -- or should be, anyway -- entirely free to teach anything it wants, as long as there are willing customers.

Jay Manifold [5:26 PM]

[ 20041111 ]

Grab Bag

Spectacular Multiple Shadow Transit on Jupiter: It was back on 28 March, and the HST caught it in infrared. Amazing.

Leonid Meteor Shower: No moonlight will interfere, but the ZHR will be only about 15-20 per hour; this is in the early hours of Wed 17 Nov.

Great Aurora Pictures: Courtesy of ICSTARS Astronomy.

Jay Manifold [4:31 PM]

[ 20041110 ]

An Amusing Correlation

-- is found by Horseman of the Arcturcalypse Alan Henderson.

Jay Manifold [5:12 PM]

X Prize Report

"Rammer" from Blog O'RAM went to the Ansari X Prize award ceremony. His report is here.

Jay Manifold [5:10 PM]

The Top Ten

You've probably already seen this, but I thought I'd pass along the fact that once again, The Dark Side of the Moon has topped a list.

Jay Manifold [5:09 PM]

[ 20041104 ]

Situational Citizenship for 2005 and Beyond

(Ref this much earlier post.)

Megan McArdle says it's time for everybody, but especially Bush voters, to be a C4. Also, recently tied for #21 on Blogdex, we find this constructive post.

Jay Manifold [6:30 PM]

[ 20041101 ]

For All Saints' Day (I): A Quote From A Saint

In this case, Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by these who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

Jay Manifold [9:09 AM]

For All Saints' Day (II): Spreading Self-Awareness

Horseman of the Arcturcalypse Bill Sjostrom gains admission to the orthogonal self-awareness party with this thoughtful commentary on Irish, and American, Catholicism and their contexts.

Jay Manifold [9:08 AM]

For All Saints' Day (III): Rainbow Followup

I have the coolest readers in the world, and a previously unknown one (the best kind), Fernando Felixberto, writes:

I saw the post about the rainbow and thought you might like to see a picture of another one which is about the same size as the one you described seeing. I stitched it together from several shots since it was a pretty wide angle. Taken last year in Sicily.

Anyway, I've followed many a link from your site to several pages with outstanding photographs, I'm just trying to return the favor in a small way. Lest you think I only check in for the links to the astronomy pictures, I do enjoy the articles you post too.

Notwithstanding that palm trees are scarce in the American Midwest, the composite photo, indeed, looks very much like what I saw! This kind of thing makes me want to get a map of the world and start sticking colored pins in it to locate all the people who've sent me stuff, or who I've gotten to visit, since starting this blog. It made my day.

Jay Manifold [9:07 AM]