07 May 2012

The transit of Venus

The forthcoming transit of Venus (on 5-6 June 2012) is an opportunity to remind ourselves how the needs of society determine the development of science. Venus passes in front of the Sun on two occasions about 8 years apart about once in every century. Soon after Johannes Kepler had formulated his third law - that a planet's distance is proportional to the time to complete on orbit - in 1609, it was realized that the transit of Venus can be used to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which in turn can be used to determine longitude, a task of vital importance to open ocean navigation. It was the time of and colonial acquisition, and imperial powers had a great interest in this. Their interest was so great indeed that Britain, France and Austria cooperated in sending science parties out to Siberia, Norway, Newfoundland and Madagascar to observe the transit of Venus of 1761. Unfortunately clouds prevented most observers from getting good data, but a second chance came 8 years later. So in 1768 Britain sent Captain James Cook to Tahiti to observe Venus' second transit in 1769.

Today most people know about James Cook as the discoverer of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia but are not aware of the public reason for his voyage. The instructions from the Admiralty concerning investigations of the postulated continent of the south were in fact given in a sealed envelope, not to be opened before departure from port, so that the official motivation for Cook's voyage would be known to the competing imperial powers as the observation of the transit of Venus.

The cost of Cook's voyage for the British state budget was comparable in relative terms to the cost incurred bu the USA to send a man to the moon. May the other powers marvel at Britain's generosity to support a scientific endevour of benefit to all; the real value of the financial outlay becomes clear to those who could access the secret orders.

06 March 2012

Greek religion and science (again)

In lecture 8 I argued that if Greek religion played a decisive role in the rise of Greek science the first nature philosophers should have appeared much earlier than 600 BC. I pointed out that Homer, whose descriptions of the interaction between mortals and gods gives a vivid demonstration of Greek religion, is thought to have lived some three centuries before that, showing that Greek religion did not produce a new attitude to nature for several centuries.

Whether Homer ever lived and whether the works ascribed to him were written by a singel author has been a matter of doubt for quite a while. I now learnt that the origins of the Iliad go back much further, to the Mycenaean civilization around 15oo BC. this strengthens my argument considerably: The behaviour of Greek gods and goddesses was known for at least a millennium but did not spark an urge for scientific study of nature. That urge arose out of changes of the structure of Greek society.

Reference: E. Luttwak: Homer Inc. London Review of Books 34 (4), 23 February 2012.

24 January 2011

After three years again: the life of Mileva Maric

More than three years ago a discussion erupted in my blog about the role of Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric in the development of Einstein's ideas about relativity. I don’t want to repeat the argument in detail here but refer you to my blog entries of 9 July 2007 in the blog archive.

The discussion left me dissatisfied at the time, but I had to wait for an opportunity to follow it up with some analysis of somewhat greater depth. This opportunity arose last year during a visit to Europe. So I wrote an essay about the issue. I did not want to enter the original controversy again (whether Maric was deprived of acknowledgment for her contribution to the core papers on relativity or not) but focus on the question whether Maric could have had a career in science and what stopped her from having one.

I submitted the essay to the journal “Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences” for review and possible publication. It was reviewed; the reviewers were not unsympathetic to the aims of the paper but recommended rejection, and so did the Associate Editor.

I think that the combined set of my paper, the two reviews, and the editor’s reasoning for its rejection can serve as useful information on the question of Milena Maric’s aborted career. So I make the set available here. I do this in the spirit of modern developments in scientific publishing: In oceanography, which is my field of speciality, submitted papers are now published on the web together with their reviews in a discussion section of a journal and move into the final peer-reviewed section if the reviewers recommend acceptance; if not, the original paper, the reviews and any related correspondence stay in the discussion section, where they remain accessible to all – see Ocean Science as an example.

It is not my intention to write a response to the reviewers’ comments here. Instead I want to make some general remarks. It is evident from the reviews that xxxx1, xxxx2 and xxxx3 (see my comment to this post) are three eminent science historians. Their suggestions for improvements to my essay can point the way along which to proceed. It is, however, not for me to follow the outlined path. After 45 years in oceanography I know how to set up an investigation into the dynamics of the ocean and bring it to successful conclusion, which usually culminates in a few paper in reputable journals. To follow through on the reviewers’ suggestions requires not the skills of an ocean scientist but the skills of a trained historian.

I consider myself fortunate to be part of a civilization that values the study of history. A civilized society needs historians who can spend months in the pursuit of sources that can shine light on the past. It is a sign of decay that great countries of the western civilization turn increasingly to plain monetary valuation of university departments and make student numbers and student evaluation the single most important measures for the worthiness of their teaching. Great civilizations need great humanity departments. The points raised by the reviewers are worth further study, but not from someone in a science department (that used to be called Earth Sciences, but not to frighten the students with the word Science it is now called School of the Environment). So I leave my investigation of the situation of disadvantaged women of the past where it is, hoping that it may be of use for true historians, and spend my retirement on changing the situation of disadvantaged women of today, working for the Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan, to which there is a link at the top right.

Just one small comment before I close: xxx1's distinction between mathematicians and physicists seems nitpicking to me. Anyone who reads my lecture notes to "Science, Civilization and Society" will realize that mathematics is the foundation of science. To me mathematicians are just as much scientists as chemists, physicists or biologists. Science has many faces, some more mathematical than others, but without mathematics there would not be any science.

Here are the links to the set (PDF files):

the essay: Mileva Maric: An Unfulfilled Career in Science
review 1 - deleted, see my comment to this entry
review 2 - deleted, see my comment to this entry
editorial report - deleted, see my comment to this entry

04 August 2010

Vedanta and Modern Physics

Two weeks ago I had an email conversation with Sharan Prakash, a high school student who is interested in Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Sharan points out that the book 'Vedanta and Modern Physics' by Dr. U. Chandrasekharyya (Lokashina Trust, Bangalore, 2006), which discusses the Vedanta philosophy of the Indian philosopher Adi Shankaracharya (born around 788), refers to the Nyaya-Vaisesika theories of atomic elements advanced by the Samkhya prakriti philosophies, in which a deeper reality is identified where mind and matter are not considered to be separate.

In contrast to dualistic religious views of the world, where matter is one domain and mind another, Advaita Vedanta philosophy by definition implies the continuity of mind and matter, i.e. a non-dualistic interpretation of reality.

Sharan says that according to Vedanta, the world in which separate atoms exist is part of the illusion of Maya, and that a deeper underlying reality exists behind this. In other words, Indian philosophers of the middle ages refer to atoms when they talk about the mind and not as the basic units of reality (which is reflected in the mind).

Not being a specialist in Indian philosophy I accept Sharan's comments as an invitation to deepen my discussion of Indian philosophy and science in lecture 14. I hope that someone more knowledgable than myself (and possibly more knowledgable than Sharan Prakash, who says that as a mere high school student, he may not be a valid authority) can add to this discussion.

03 July 2010

The German chemical industry and the precautionary principle

Bisphenol A is an organic compound with similarities to hormones. It is used in plastic containers, plastic baskets and other plastic goods as a softener, giving the products flexibility. Suspected to be harmful to humans for many years, it has come into the limelight since about 2008 when reports appeared in the press about possible harmful effects. A 2010 report from the United States Food and Drug Administration raised further concerns regarding exposure of fetuses, infants, and young children.

The German magazine Spiegel now reports that three weeks ago the president of Germany's Federal Environment Authority suggested that producers of plastic articles containing Biphenol A should begin to use alternative softeners as a precautionary measure. This further illustrates what I said in the postscriptum to my course: that society has to move from unlimited innovation to protection of the health of our planet. A suggestion from a government authority is of course only a small timid step in that direction, and because it does not have the power yet to enforce precautionary action it is met with blanket opposition from industry: The expert for product safety of Germany's Chemical Industry Federation says that "from the point of view of customer protection" there is no reason for a ban.

Real protection of the health of our planet and its inhabitants will only come when the onus of proof shifts from the government to industry and the role of science shifts from limitless innovation to verification that new products do not pose harm to users and environment.

Source: Der Spiegel nr. 24 of 14 June 2010 p. 16: "Gesundheitsrisiko Weichmacher?"

09 March 2010

Hiroshima and the fall of Berlin - getting the timeline right

In lecture 29 I said: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shown that the USA had the bomb. It soon became clear that before long they would also have long range missiles that could reach the Soviet Union without the need of bombers flying over it." The next two paragraphs then go into a discussion of the reasons why Stalin wanted the Red Army to enter Berlin before any other allied forces could reach the city.
Some have interpreted my text as saying that the motivation for Stalin's move towards Berlin was the release of the atomic bombs over Japan. As one reader wrote: "You say that 'Hiroshima etc had shown that the USA had the bomb'. Wasn't the Fall of Berlin in April–May 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima in August of that year?"
This is of course correct: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred after the Red Army had reached Berlin and the war in Europe had ended. But the Soviet Union had been well aware of progress with the Mahattan project for quite some time and did not need the proof of actual bombs falling on cities. My text muddles the timeline and can be misleading.
Because my policy with the lecture notes is to leave them standing as they are and use this blog for updates I only added a link to this note in the original lecture 29.

05 March 2010

The changing character of war

In Lecture 29 I said that World War I was the last "classical" war, a war in which the casualties were found mainly amongst the soldiers. Beginning with World War II military conflicts produce more casualties among the civilian population than among the soldiers (a fact painstakingly avoided by the media, which report every death among the occupying forces in Afghanistan but rarely mention the much larger death toll among Afghan civilians).
A recent review of a study of returned servicemen after World War II illustrates the deveelopment with some interesting observations. When the soldiers returned home from the battlefields of World War I the civilian population acknowledged their suffering and greeted them with a sense of guilt: "While British state pensions and policies were ungenerous, civilian volunteers stepped into the breach, flocking to donate money and time to hospitals, rest homes, philantropies and cultural associations that sought to ease disabled veterans' isolation and pain."
In contrast, soldiers returning home after World War II were ignored, their stories of suffering paled in comparison with those of survivors in bombed-out cities. Instead of a hero's welcome, or at least understanding for trauma and depression, they found a lack of empathy and faced the disintegration of their private lives: "Divorces went up, from 4100 decrees absolute in England and Wales in 1935, to 15,600 in 1945, to 60,300 in 1947." Veterans from the Vietnam war did not fare better.

Reference: Susan Pedersen: Suitable Heroes. A review of Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War by Alan Allport. London Review of Books 32(4) 25 February 2010, pp. 11-12.

06 December 2009

The new chemistry and strange treatment of diseases

Priestley's discovery of oxygen and Lavoisier's new description of the building blocks of nature had surprising consequences in the area of medicine. Thomas Beddoes (1760 - 1808), a philanthropic physician who cared much about the health of the poor and was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution during its first years, got carried away by the excitement of the new chemistry. He was convinced that illnesses such as "consumption" or "phthisis" (tuberculosis) and scurvy are the result of an imbalance of the elements in the inhaled air and promoted a new "pneumatic chemistry".

Scurvy (a disease produced by a lack of vitamin C) was in his view produced by a lack of oxygen in the air evidenced by discoloration of the gums, heart and lungs and could therefore be cured by letting the patient inhale air enriched with oxygen. The fact that seamen often succumbed to scurvy during long voyages across vast oceans could, in his view, be explained by oceanic air having a lower oxygen content. Beddoes was aware of the success of James Cook in beating scurvy through ample supply of acidic vegetables but argued that "this seems in great measure owing to his extreme care to keep his ships well aired."

The opposite, too much oxygen in the air, was in Beddoes' view the reason for tuberculosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria now treated with antibiotica). He deduced this from the observation that occasionally pregnancy delays the progress of the disease and argued in 1793: "The foetus has its blood oxygenated by the blood of the mother through the placenta. During pregnancy there seems to be no provision for the reception of an unusual quantity of oxygene. On the contrary, in consequence of the impeded action of the diaphragm, less and less should be continually taken in by the lungs. If therefore a somewhat diminished proportion of oxygene be the effect of pregnancy, may not this be the way in which it arrests the progress of phthisis; and if so, is there not an excess of oxygene in the system of consumptive persons?"

Beddoes easily admitted that much of this was speculation. Nevertheless, driven by his urge to help humankind and improve the health of the poor, he promoted to keep patients afflicted with consumption in closed, badly ventilated rooms and established a Pneumatic Institute where patients were treated with air enriched with or depleted of various gases.

Naturally the Pneumatic Institute was not a success. For the patients, who were mostly close to their death already, the wrong therapy probably did not change much. But the Pneumatic Chemistry and its Institute were a sad waste of the extraordinary talents of a man who all his life wanted to better the fate of the ordinary people.


Beddoes, Thomas (1793) Observations on the Nature and Cure of Calculus, Sea Scurvy, Consumption, Catarrh, and Fever: together with Conjectures upon several other Subjects of Physiology and Pathology. London: J. Murrey.

Jay, Mike (2009) The Atmosphere of Heaven: the Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

12 October 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

I do not usually comment on current political events in these pages, but last week I received an email invitation to congratulate Barack Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize. As I have commented on an earlier Nobel Peace Prize (see my entry of 14 October 2007 "Should the IPCC receive the Nobel Peace Prize?") I feel justified to react publicly to this insult to my intelligence. I do that by comparing the timelines of the Vietnam War (a war that also sparked a Nobel Peace Prize) and of the war in Afghanistan. What is a Nobel Peace Prize worth if the wars intensify? Evidently the prize has lost all credibility and value (except its monetary value, of course).
The emphasis on Australia is for some local friends. How long should Australia wait before it withdraws its troops this time?

1961 John F. Kennedy becomes president,
2,000 US troops in Vietnam
2001 George W. Bush becomes president,
special forces are sent into Afghanistan after arial bombing campaign
1963First coordinated protests in London and AustraliaLyndon B. Johnson becomes president, says that "the purpose in Vietnam is to prevent the success of aggression."2003 5,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan
1964Student marches in US cities16,500 US troops in Vietnam
1965First large anti-war marches in the US,
first sabotaging of military aircraft in Canada
The war is extended into Cambodia and Laos
200,000 US troops in Vietnam
2005 George W. Bush is re-elected president, declares that "the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom."
1966Public opinion moves from support to rejection of the war
2008Public opinion in Europe and Australia moves from support to rejection of the war, first large anti-war demonstrations in Europe
1969Millions take a day off in the US to demonstrate against the warRichard Nixon becomes president, promises "peace with honour" and an end to the war2009First news reports of protest demonstrations in AustraliaBarack Obama becomes president, says that the previous administration "has overextended our military", sends an additional 15,000 troops, authorizes the bombing of targets in Pakistan, receives the Nobel Prize
100,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan (66,000 US, 34,500 NATO)
1970First and only nationwide student strike in the US closes universities in protest against the warUS troops start incursions into Cambodia
Kissinger pushes for intense bombing of Cambodia
2010???US may start incursions into Pakistan (?)
US may raise foreign troop level to over 120,000 (?)
1971More than 12,000 demonstrators arrested in WashingtonAustralia and New Zealand withdraw their troops2011??????
1973 Kissinger receives the Nobel Prize
US troops withdraw from Vietnam, the USA increase military aid
2013?????? becomes president, promises to ???
1974 Gerald Ford becomes president, is forced to phase out aid by 19762014??????
1975 The fall of Saigon ends the war2015??????
Final cost: 3 - 4 million Vietnamese and 1.5 - 2 million Laotians and Cambodians killed, 58,159 US soldiers deadCost to date (October 2009): over 12,000 civilians killed (about 40% by anti-goverment forces, 60% by foreign troops), 1,435 foreign soldiers dead

14 June 2009

Calendar wisdom: who can add to it?

During the last few months I have been working with the publisher Weldon Owen on the Pacific Ocean section of their planned Atlas of the Sea, to be published in their family reference series in November. These books are of high quality, large format and colourful, full of information and at the same time suitable for the coffee table, see their website.

Now I am working with Weldon Owen on a volume Science and Society. It will be based on my lecture course but obviously have a very different presentation format - many photos and illustrations but only the most essential text.

One element of the book will be quotations from scientists and others relevant to each section of the book. I am searching for quotations from old texts related to the calendar problem. Here is what I have found so far:

The Atharva Veda says:
To the seasons we speak, to the lords of the seasons, and to the sections of the year; to the half-years, years and months: they shall deliver us from calamity! ... The five divine regions, the twelve divine seasons, the teeth of the year, they shall ever be propitious, to us! (Hymn XI, 6)
Thy summer, O earth, thy rainy season, thy autumn, winter, early spring, and spring; thy decreed yearly seasons, thy days and nights shall yield us milk. (Hymn XII, 36)

The Bible says:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and year." (Genesis 1:14)

The Qu'ran says: He it is Who made the sun a shining brightness and the moon a light, and ordained for it mansions that you might know the computation of years and the reckoning. (10:5)

Does anyone have other ancient quotations related to the calendar problem, from ancient China, Japan, South East Asia, Egypt, Greece, anywhere? If you do, please send a comment to this entry.