02 December 2008
15 November 2008
Persian uses the same numerals as Arabic:
However, I discovered that the way numbers are written in Persian and Arabic gives a strong clue to their origin: While Persian, like Arabic, is written from right to left, numbers are written from left to right, even if they occur in a line of text. In other words, they break the flow of reading: The reader arrives at the number from the right, then has to take the number in against the flow of the text, and then revert to right-to-left reading.
It seems clear to me that the reason for this rather strange convention has to be seen in the Indian origin of the Arabian numbers. The Brahmi script, the first script used for Sanskrit, was written from left to right. The Indian number system was first developed in the Brahmi script. When the Muslim scientists learned about the Indian position value number system they introduced it into Arabic in exactly the form as they had found it: They used the Indian numerals and the Indian notation.
While the Persian script remained a mystery for me during the two weeks of my travels, I became quite adept at reading and "translating" Dari numbers, because they follow our way of writing, and in a decimal position value number system you only have to remember ten numerals.
16 October 2008
Parliamentary democracy is the form of government during the period of fully developed capitalism. It serves the purpose to make the people think that they can exercise power and to hide the fact that the power is and remains in the hands of the ruling class and its agents in parliament. (This does not mean that every parliamentarian works for the benefit of the ruling class, but the system always makes sure that the majority does.) As capitalism matures the political parties become more and more interchangeable, and it becomes more and more difficult to influence future development of society through parliamentary elections.
Experience shows that in a capitalist society real progress does not come from parliaments. Real power by the people is usually exercised though actions outside parliament such as strikes, demonstrations and other forms of direct action. If you need proof look at my other blog, The Woolloomooloo murals.
10 October 2008
In the coming weeks I intend to remedy this and go through the text of the web lectures and associated material to bring them into alignment with the book version. Any changes will be very minor and not change the essence of the text. Amended lectures will be annotated with the date of the last update from now on.
In 1923, when the internal enemies of the October Revolution had finally been defeated, "the national income was only one-third of its level in 1913. Industry produced less than one-fifth of the goods, the coal mines yielded only one-tenth, and iron foundries only one-fortieth of their normal output." Many city people were forced to live in the country just to feed themselves: "Russia's cities and towns ... had become so depopulated that in 1921 Moscow had only one half and Petrograd only one third of its former inhabitants." (quotations from David Horowitz: Imperialism and Revolution. London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1969.)
US president Kennedy described the situation in 1963 with these words: "No nation in the historic battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including two-thirds of its industrial base, were turned into a wasteland - a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago." (quoted in Horowitz, loc. cit.)
It appears that I was giving the US military the benefit of the doubt, and this quite unjustifiably. Others have been much more damning in their assessment. The nuclear physicist Patrick M. S. Blackett, who in 1947 received the Nobel price in physics for his work on atomic and cosmic-ray physics, "was the first to point out that the Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan fulfilled diplomatic objectives vis-à-vis the U.S.S.R. rather than military objectives which could not be accomplished by other means." (P.M.S. Blackett: Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. London: Turnstile Press, 1948; quoted in David Horowitz: Imperialism and Revolution. London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1969.)
In other words, the sole purpose of the Japanese deaths in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki was to frighten Stalin and establish a position of strength for the Cold War. This would place not just the Nagasaki bomb but both bombs into the category of war crime.
30 September 2008
The Tide Predicter page says that "the musical patterns were generated by Stephanie Mason at the University of Minnesota Geometry Center, who wrote C-code to generate predicted tides for these ports, and programmed a NeXT-MIDI interface to generate the corresponding soundtracks." You have to admit that the resulting sounds are more of educational/scientific than musical interest. I asked my son Sebastian, who studies music technology at the University of Adelaide, to produce a bit of sonification of some observational data from one of my field studies. He used data from an oceanographic data buoy that recorded (among other things) wind speed and direction, ocean current and temperature and conductivity at various depths in Thorny Passage near Port Lincoln, South Australia. Here is the result: Southern Ocean sounds.
Seb used the observed wind direction to set the rhythm and the battery voltage to control the loudness; he converted the conductivity at 2.5 m depth into marimba, the temperature at 2.5 m depth into soft organ and the salinity at 2.5 m depth (calculated from temperature and conductivity) into drums. As the water moves in and out through the Passage with the tide its salinity and temperature change slightly, so the up and down of the melody mirrors the tide. The variable speed of the rhythm is produced by the passage of atmospheric fronts that cause sudden changes in wind direction. It does make for more interesting music than just tidal heights from a tide table, don't you think?
You can find Seb's own blog here.
19 September 2008
The introduction to the "Summary Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger" of 1895 says: "The desire to establish telegraphic communication between Europe and America gave the first direct impulse towards systematic exploration of the deep sea." (Briscoe, 2008) It appears that again science - in this instance deep sea science - develops only where there is a need for it.
The same Oceanography volume contains an article that documents in detail how after World War II physical oceanography was driven by the needs of imperialist navies to develop underwater warfare. (Munk and Day, 2008)
Briscoe, M. (2008) Celebrating 20 years of The Oceanography Society. Oceanography 21(3), 12-13.
Munk, W. and D. Day (2008) Glimpses of oceanography in the postwar period. Oceanography 21(3), 14-21.
08 September 2008
It can also be ordered online from various sellers. Some are listed at the web site "World Civilizations"; just click on the title of this post. It may be worth comparing prices at other sellers - the steep price was set by the publisher, not by me. As of today the lowest price is only available in Europe, unfortunately.
09 August 2008
This was in 2001, when Lomborg was on his way to become director of Denmark's national Environmental Assessment Institute, a position he held until 2004. Now the world has moved on, and it has become impossible to close one's eyes before the evidence that global climate change induced by human activity will produce disastrous developments if we do not take correcting action very soon. Lomborg, now Adjunct Professor at Copenhagen Business School, found a new platform in the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. Last year he published Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, according to his personal website "a groundbreaking book that transforms the debate about global warming by offering a fresh perspective based on human needs as well as environmental concerns."
He continues, talking about himself in third person: "Rather than starting with the most radical procedures, Lomborg argues that we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and assuring and maintaining a safe fresh water supply - which can be addressed at a fraction of the cost and save millions of lives within our lifetime."
It is of course befitting for a Professor of Business to see the world exclusively through cost/benefit analysis. It is also not surprising that if you rank today's problems in order of their cost/benefit ratio, supplementing the diet of children in developing countries with vitamin A comes out on top, since some $20 - $30 are returned for every dollar spent, while the return on a dollar spent on greenhouse mitigation could be as low as 90 cents. But what can we conclude from such an exercise? That we should not spend our money on greenhouse mitigation but on vitamin supplements instead?
Lomborg should know - and being a trained academic presumably does know - that cost/benefit analysis does not help us much in the face of crisis if it is not combined with risk analysis. It is also not possible to analyze global problems such as vitamin deficiency in the Third World in isolation. If we ignore greenhouse warming today the children of developing countries will still be worse off in twenty years' time than today, because the entire ecosystem on which their food supply depends will have deteriorated dramatically. But Lomberg's book is not about scientific analysis, it is about selling old wine in new bottles.
The Weekend Australian of 2-3 August quotes Nick Rowley, former climate change adviser to the UK government, as saying that Lomberg is making a fundamental error of logic. "The level of risk we confront is a greater level of risk than virtually any other area. He views these as if they are mutually exclusive; they're not. They're intertwined and you can't see a scenario where under even two degrees of warming the most vulnerable people in the world are not going to be a lot more vulnerable. There are a lot of moral and ethical considerations that need to influence that process as well. It's not just a technical exercise."
As I said in Lecture 35: "It is not the observational evidence that makes Lomborg a partisan scientist, it is the ethical dimension of his science."
29 July 2008
19 June 2008
I have now studied von Humboldt’s biography and have to admit that his low treatment in the context of science and society is not justified. This is not the place to summarize his life, but a few comments on his position in the development of science during the early 19th century are in order.
Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 - 6 May 1859) was born and died in Berlin, the capital of Prussia. After an unremarkable education he became intensely interested in botany, became knowledgeable in mineralogy and meteorology and developed a hunger for exploration. But in the late 18th century exploration went hand in hand with imperial expansion. Prussia was a political power of third rank, and while the Prussian king wanted to boost his Academy of Sciences he did have neither the means nor the inclination to develop a world empire.
Von Humboldt’s career as a scientist vividly demonstrates how scientific progress is shaped by the political constellation of the time. Unable to join an exploration party in his home country, von Humboldt tried to join French exploration efforts. He was invited to join Nicolas Baudin, but political upheaval caused the postponement of Baudin’s voyage. An attempt to go to Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte also came to nothing. Eventually Spain’s prime minister Mariano de Urquijo supported an application to the Spanish king for a royal permit to visit the Spanish possessions in the Americas.
During the five years 1799 - 1804 von Humboldt and his companion Aimé Bonpland travelled some 9,650 kilometres through South and Central America, walking the ancient Inca roads, canoeing on its rivers and riding across its mountains. Spain’s colonies were in those days only accessible to government officials and Roman Catholic missionaries, and von Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s discoveries in an otherwise closed continent turned into invaluable contributions to the growing knowledge base of botany, geography and earth sciences generally.
On his return from America in 1804 von Humboldt lived in Paris, the centre of science, until in 1827 his financial means were exhausted and he had to return to Berlin, where he received a royal stipend as the tutor of the Crown Prince. He used the last three decades of his life to write Kosmos, a description of the structure of the universe as then known that within a few years was translated into nearly all European languages.
25 May 2008
Robert Merkin of Northampton, Massachusetts, USA, recently sent me a photo of the tide predictor that was in use at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1912 to 1965. It was built by Rollin A. Harris and E. G. Fisher, who modeled it on Lord Kelvin's Tide Predicter, and can handle 37 tidal constituents. It is also known as "Old Brass Brains". Here is Bob Merkin's photo.
Bob also pointed me to a site that offers an animation of Kelvin's Tide Predicter. It shows the workings of the Predicter much clearer than my own description and offers a choice of seven port locations to try it out. Unfortunately it comes under the heading "Fourier Analysis of Ocean Tides".
Fourier Analysis uses multiples of a base period; but the tidal constituents are not multiples of a base period, they are set by the movement of the earth and the moon. Tides are therefore predicted by adding the effect of the various tidal constituents with their known periods. This method is called Harmonic Analysis in oceanography.
In mathematics the term Harmonic Analysis describes an extension of classical Fourier Analysis. When the term Harmonic Analysis is used in the context of tide prediction it does not carry that meaning; it refers to a method that is based on the known periods of the tidal constituents. This has lead to confusion on occasions. Kelvin's Tide Predicter is a very helpful tool to clarify the situation.
11 May 2008
In a footnote to lecture 8 I used the example of Tycho Brahe, the Danish aristocrat turned astronomer. A study of the history of astronomy described his birth in 1546 as "fortunate" for the development of science. I queried that and said: "What honours him and secures his place in the history of science is not his fortunate birth but his decision to turn his back on the idle life of the ordinary nobleman and apply his gifted mind to science." Brahe did not care much about the aristocracy; he married a peasant's daughter and embarked on a career as imperial mathematician and astronomer.
It is instructive to compare Brahe's attitude to science with that of the English nobleman Joseph Banks, the resident naturalist during James Cook's fist expedition into the South Pacific. Banks brought along a second naturalist, a secretary, two artists and four servants, all paid for from his own wealth.
The large amount of work done by Banks and his party in the field of botany and taxonomy was an immense contribution to science. But Banks clearly did not see science as an important part of his life; he saw it more as what Galiliei called the "regal sport" of the ruling class. This became obvious when Cook invited Banks to join his second voyage into the South Pacific on the Resolution. Banks agreed, on the condition that he could increase his party to fifteen, including two musicians to while away the time. He even managed to talk the Navy into adding an extra deck to the ship to accommodate his party.
When the time came to sail the Resolution out of the shipyard one of Cook's lieutenants called her "by far the most unsafe ship I ever saw or heard of." The pilot declared her top-heavy and prone to capsize and refused to even move her off the dock. The ship was restored to her original state and Banks, swearing and sulking, withdrew from the expedition.
The story demonstrates that when it comes to evaluating the role of individuals to science, looking at their contribution to science alone does not produce a balanced assessment. Banks clearly had the capacity and gift to play a much larger role in the history of botany, but he chose the idle life of the aristocracy.
Allen, O. E. (1980): The Seafarers, the Pacific Navigators. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 176 pp.
There is no doubt that some Dominican friars tried to soften the treatment of the indigenous people by the conquerors and prevented the worst excesses. But there is also no denying that even such intellectual interest as the study of indigenous languages (mainly to enable the Christian gospel to be preached in the local vernacular) was aimed at the final destruction of a "pagan" civilization. Any historical assessment of the role of Christianity has to admit that the muskets and guns of the conquistadors were not the only instruments that brought great civilizations to an end but also the book burnings and destruction of places of worship by the representatives of the Church.
The Convent of San Esteban in Salamanca, Spain, was and remains the centre of the Dominican mission. It features a display of the Dominican role in the conquest of South America. There are exhibits of souvenirs brought back by Dominican missionaries, but one searches in vain for any indication of regret for what happened under their spiritual supervision. Instead, vague and obfuscating texts attempt to conceal their contribution to the destruction of great civilizations.
A book exhibit "San Esteban, Search and Encounter; America, the universalist Dominican vocation" declares: "The world expanded itself, and it became necessary to invent new norms. What was known and understood was no longer sufficient. The search for the truth extended itself to the other side of the ocean." The main inscription on the wall of the Convent is more direct; it concedes that it was not the world that drove the action by expanding itself, admits that actions involved people, and identifies the actors: "The thoughts and the action of the Dominicans of San Esteban in America demonstrate that the battle for the freedom and the dignity of all people is the way to the TRUTH – And the only medium: the WORD." The South American Indians should be thankful for the freedom and dignity they received!
The early Portuguese and Spanish sea captains were true explorers, in the sense that their contract with the crown (four fifth of the profit to the explorer, one fifth to the crown) was based on voyages to unknown destinations and therefore carried great risk. The British crown found it more profitable to raid the Spanish outposts in regions already discovered. It financed Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and other "privateers" to sack Spanish settlements and capture Spain's ships.
The profitability of marauding voyages was beyond doubt. When Drake captured a Spanish galleon in 1579 he obtained 13 chests of silver coin, 26 tons of silver bullion, 80 pounds of gold, and uncounted jewellery. Cavendish sacked Puna Island off Peru, slaughtering its Indian inhabitants, in 1587; he returned from his two year marauding voyage with a booty worth 125,000 pounds, nearly half of the Crown's annual revenue. Such adventurism did not contribute much to science.
11 March 2008
The first figure shows the total CO2 emissions, including those from land-use, for 2004; units are gigatons, the scale is on the left. Squares show per capita emissions, in tons on the right-hand scale. I added the yellow line to the figure; it shows the acceptable per capita emission if we assume that the world has to return to the total emissions it produced in 1990.
The second figure is a sketch (the Garnaut report calls it "a stylised, illustrative scenario") of what has to happen if we want to stabilize the climate. The y-axis gives per capita emissions, the x-axis time, both without units. The figure demonstrates the huge change in lifestyle the USA and Australia have to undergo if they are to reach their per capita targets. The European Union and Japan are under far less pressure but have to reduce their per capital consumption, too. With the numbers adopted by the Garnaut report China has not quite reached the maximum acceptable per capita consumption (which means that my yellow line in the first figure was drawn somewhat too far down on the scale) but will reach it soon, while India is not in such a tight situation.
The Garnaut report was commissioned to form the basis for Australia's climate change policy. Hopefully the Australian government will adopt it in full. Any delay in adoption of the percapita emission principle will cause more damage to the environment.
16 January 2008
It is certainly correct that many of Carson's claims about the environmental effects of DDT cannot be substantiated. Carson, who had trained as a biologist but made a career as a nature journalist, was interested in raising public awareness of the deterioration of the environment through industrial products, at a time when such ideas were novel and went against the general belief in scientific progress at all cost. She was successful to such a degree that her book is now widely considered to mark the beginning of the environmental movement. That she argued her case with wild exaggerations and several wrong claims may be understandable for someone who can see the future of a world with an unrestrained chemical industry but is met with hostility wherever she goes, but that does not exonerate her from having employed dishonest means.
Edwards' claim of scientific fraud is another matter. As Edwards reports himself, the DDT hearing of the EPA, which lasted seven months, came to the conclusion that DDT does not pose a threat to human or animal health and recommended to allow its use as a pesticide; but the recommendation was overruled by the EPA Administrator, who had links with an environmental group. There was thus no scientific fraud: Science came to the correct conclusion. The fault lay with the administration, i.e. in the political domain.
Edwards' paper is not completely free from misleading claims. It focuses on DDT use for mosquito control in malaria eradication, describes the early successes with DDT spraying between 1945 and 1960 and says: "After the U.S. ban on DDT, there is a global malaria burden of 300 to 500 million cases and 1 to 2.5 million deaths annually, mostly among young children. Malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds." As Edwards describes it, the ban on DDT can only be seen as a crime against humanity.
This picture is far from the truth for several reasons:
- The use of DDT for malaria control represented a very small proportion of general DDT use of the 1950s and 1960s. Widespread use of DDT in agriculture, while possibly of no harm to humans, can only increase resistance to it and is therefore only a temporary gain, while the quantity of DDT in the environment accumulates. DDT is very persistent in the environment, and the low doses recommended by the EPA science assessment may eventually be exceeded by large amounts.
- The ban on DDT refers only to agricultural use; its use in malaria control has always been permitted. The World Health Organization recommends DDT for indoor spraying, a use that was formally included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in May 2004, 6 months before Edwards' paper was published. (Indoor spraying – the coverage of walls and ceilings with a thin DDT layer - prevents mosquitoes entering buildings but does not kill them; it acts as a barrier between mosquitoes and humans.)
- The claim that continued use of DDT would have saved millions of lives cannot be verified. Many mosquito populations have developed resistance to DDT (in Sri Lanka, India and many other countries as early as 10 years before DDT was banned). Effective malaria control now requires the use of alternatives such as pyrethroids (synthetic chemical compounds that emulate the natural chemical pyrethrins produced by certain Chrysanthemum flowers and are used in many insect repellents). Ironically, the rapid loss of effectiveness in the 1960s was mainly the result of agricultural DDT spraying, which used much larger quantities than malaria control. This suggests that DDT effectiveness for malaria control could have been maintained much longer if agricultural use of DDT would have been banned 20 years earlier.
Carson R. (1962): Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass.
Edwards, J. G. (2004): DDT: a case study in scientific fraud. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 9 (3), 83-88; available as PDF file.
World Health Organization (2004): WHO position on DDT use in disease vector control under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. WHO/HTM/RBM/2004.53 rev.1, available as PDF file
More information and debate at http://timlambert.org/category/science/ddt