Tag: science

Ever Since (Stephen Jay) Gould

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My grandfather was a regular reader of Natural History magazine during its heyday. I recall the magazine sitting around the table beside his chair. I would occasionally skim through it. I must have come across Stephen Jay Gould’s column, “This View of Life” at some point, but I can’t remember when. Besides, at time, I his columns were beyond my abilities. Even now, those columns push me to my limits.

I say this because this year, I have finally gotten around to reading Gould’s books of essays that collect most of the 300 columns he wrote for Natural History. Unlike my usual practice, I’m not going through the collections in order of appearance, but instead, somewhat haphazardly. In order of my reading this year, I’ve made my way through the following volumes:

During this year, I also managed to read Gould’s A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History and The Mismeasure of Man.

If my research is correct, there are two more books of Natural History essays that I have yet to read: The Lying Stones of Marrakech and I Have Landed. I’m doubtful I’ll get through these two remaining books before the year is out because I have quite a few books in line ahead of them. But you never know.

I came to essays primarily through Isaac Asimov’s science essay column in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I have written how at the time those essays taught me almost everything I know about science. Gould’s essays are much more challenging reads than Asimov’s essays were, but in some ways, the essays are more rewarding, and have introduced me to and instructed me in areas and methods of science with which I’d had little familiarity.

Over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the science essay that places it in my personal pantheon of favorites as high–if not slightly higher–in ranking as the personal essay. One of the strengths of both Asimov’s and Gould’s essays is that they are personal in some regard. I imagine writing a future post that focuses on the history and value of the science essays, especially long-term essay columnists like Asimov and Gould and Martin Gardner, as well as their predecessors like Willie Ley and R.S. Richardson. In such an essay, I might wonder about the disappearance of regular science essays columns and explore that path in the same way Gould explores evolutionary dead-ends.

But here I wanted to talk about Gould’s essays and the impact they’ve had on me already. When I started reading them, back in May, I went in with the notion that they would be similar to Asimov’s given their popularity. In actual fact, the essays are nothing alike. In his wonderful editorial, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Oct. 1980), the Good Doctor expounds on his theory of writing. Mosaic writing is complex, layered, multifaceted writing; plate glass is clear and shows directly through to the point. He couldn’t have provided a better analogy for comparing Gould’s writing to his own, for when I began reading Ever Since Darwin, I recognized almost at once that this was mosaic writing to Asimov’s plate glass.

As I do with most books these day, I began with the audiobook edition of Ever Since Darwin, but I found the subject matter and the complexity of the writing to be enough of a challenge that I knew the audiobook editions alone wouldn’t be good enough. I needed the physical books to help follow along with Gould’s arguments. This is not so much a criticism of Gould’s writing as it my ability to understand the subject matter. Indeed, I found that I enjoyed Gould’s style of science writing more than I did Asimov’s. Asimov was a great explainer. He didn’t write down to the reader, but he often simplified concepts–a good thing for the lay reader.

Gould on the other hands wrote those essays for other professionals and expected that readers of the column would rise to the challenge. These essays are a challenge for me, but I enjoy that challenge, I enjoy puzzling my way through Gould’s arguments to make sure that I understand them. I come away from each one a better-equipped thinker.

I ordered copies of the Gould collections I didn’t already have in hardcopy. That is to say, all of them except Dinosaur in a Haystack, which I picked up in college when it first came out, and which has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since–until this year. I found most of them easily enough, but a few were out of print and I had to locate them from secondhand bookshops online. I was mildly annoyed by this, until fortune stepped in, as it so often has, in my book-buying activity. One place had used copies of The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Leonardo’s Mountain Clams and the Diet of Worms and I ordered both. When they arrived I put them in their proper places on the shelf until I was ready to read them. As I mentioned, I haven’t yet read The Lying Stones of Marrakech, but one day, when I was pulling Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams… off the shelf, I noticed a sticker on The Lying Stones of Marrakech that read “SIGNED.” I flipped open the book and saw this:

My signed copy of The Lying Stones of Marrakech.

The Lying Stones of Marrakech is the penultimate book in the series of essays and was published on April 11, 2000. Gould died in May 2002, which means the book must have been signed by Gould sometime in that 2-year span. It is a joy to have a signed Gould book in my collection.

Gould’s essays have had a notable effect on me. For thing, I’ve learned more about natural history than I ever knew before. The books have opened my eyes to the natural world around me. The range of subjects covered by the books is vast, although nearly always related to some aspect of evolution. They seems to cover everything, from how camouflage evolved in the natural world, to why no one will likely ever hit .400 in the major leagues again.

Recently, for instance, I was out a morning walk. We have a lot of deer in the park woods in our area and seeing them munching along the bike path is a common site in the mornings and evenings. On this particular fall morning, the foliage was riotous, the bike path was covered in leaves, as was the floor of the woods that surrounded me on both sides as I walked.

The path where deer seemed to materialize out of the foliage.

I would not have noticed the young deer to my left had it not raised its head. I caught the motion from the corner of my eye and when I looked there was the young deer standing among a background of similarly colored shrubs and leaves. Experience told me that if I saw one deer, there were likely others around, so I stopped and stood still and peered into the woods. At first, all I saw was a tangle of limbs and leaves that was almost too much to take in. But then as I watched, several deer emerged from that tangle in way that I can only describe as similar to the way the image in those stereograms from the 1980s emerged once you learned how to focus past them. One moment, I was looking at empty woods, the next it seemed full of deer.

If Asimov’s essays formed a foundation on the scientific method and way that science works (his essays were often steeped in the history of science), then Gould’s by comparison have been a graduate courses in the same subjects. Gould’s essays teach not only scientific method and logical thinking, but they challenge with edge cases, give examples of long-accepted arguments that are filled with fallacies, and breakdown the complexities of real science into its component parts. The history he delves into is often the history of science as a self-correcting process.

Like many writers and scientists, Gould’s theories are sometimes seen as controversial. His theory of punctuated equilibrium raised eyebrows, and as I have been working my way through Gould’s essays, I’ve also been sure to read his critics–something his essays helped reinforce. I finally got around to reading Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. And I recently read Daniel C. Dennett’s memoir I’ve Been Thinking and his book Consciousness, Explained both of which have some criticism of Gould and his theories. I take these criticisms seriously, and I don’t yet understand all of theories well enough to make a good judgement as to where I fall. What I can say is that Gould’s essays are among the most intellectually challenging I have come across, and what a joy the experience of reading them has been.

Indeed, I may have to read them again to full grasp the underlying theories Gould writes about. But I look forward to this task with enthusiasm. I am working my way toward reading another Gould book that has been sitting on my shelf unread for 21 years now: his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. At 1,400 pages, it is a massive tome, and not without controversy and criticism, with some critics calling the book unreadable. I take this statement with a grain of salt. Gould’s essays are difficult but there is a beauty in that challenge, and I can see how any writing that isn’t spoon-fed to a reader can be characterized as “unreadable.” Gould often writes about how he goes to original sources as much as possible for many reasons, a good lesson in critical thinking, and one that I want to embrace by reading and judging The Structure of Evolutionary Theory on my own.

But that may be a project for 2024 and beyond.

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The Sperm Whale in the Room

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It started with the September 11, 2023 issue of The New Yorker. The issue contained a fascinating feature by Elizabeth Kolbert titled, “Can We Talk to Whales?” The article followed several researchers affiliated with CETA (Cetacean Translation Initiative) in their quest to see if humans and whales could communicate. What made it all the more fascinating was the use of large language models like ChatGPT.

The researchers were not exactly using ChatGPT to try to speak to sperm whales. Rather, they were attempting to use a similar concept in developing a language model based on sperm whale songs. ChatGPT works by creating a neural net trained on millions (if not billions) of pages of human-written text (and code) available on the Internet. Then, given an input, the language model puts together an answer based upon the a range of likely next word in a phrase, building up responses. At this point, my own understand is that most experts don’t believe that ChatGPT has any comprehension of the words it is putting together.

For the CETI project, efforts are being made at recording vast amounts of sperm whale song. When enough of a corpus has been gathered, a large language model will be trained on these recordings. Then, much like ChatGPT, if a whale song is provided as input, the LLM will provide a whale song in response. What I find most fascinating about this is that we won’t necessarily know what the input or response mean, or if they are significant in any way, but it will be interesting to see how the whales respond.

Clearly, I enjoyed the article. It was one of those articles that I wished was even longer. (Fortunately, it was a particularly good issue of the magazine for science articles. There was another great article in that issue, “The Transformative, Alarming Power of Gene Editing” by Dana Goodyear.)

The next day, several new magazines arrived in the mail. When a new magazine arrives, I enter the feature articles into a text file I keep. Each evening, I have script that sends me an email with a randomly-selected feature article to read the next day (two articles on Friday and Saturday evenings). I was entering the list of articles fro the October 2023 Scientific American into my text file, when I came across an article by Lois Parshley titled, “Talking with Animals” and on the cover page to the article was a picture of a sperm whale and a caption that read, “The Project Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) is using machine learning to try to understand the vocalizations of sperm whales.” What a coincidence, I thought, having just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on the same subject in The New Yorker.

I moved on to the other magazine that arrived that day, the October issue of WIRED. I was eager for this issue because there was a story about Open AI by Steven Levy, and I always enjoy his writing. But as I was entering the features in to my text file, I came across this one, listed in the contents as “How to Chat with the Whales” by Camille Bromley. (Inside the magazine, the article was called “Calls of the Wild.”) Once again, the article was about, at least in part, project CETI and using AI to communicate with whales.

One time is random. Twice is a coincidence. Three articles about talking with whales using AI–that seems like a pattern to me. I can’t recall the last time so specific a subject was featured in three different magazines so close together. I have yet to read the articles in Scientific American or WIRED (my daily random article generator hasn’t selected them yet), but I am looking forward to them.

I thought that was the end of it.

And then I was skimming the New York Times early in the morning, as I am wont to do, and came across an article by Sonia Shah, “The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?” While this article was more broad and philosophical, it once again discussed CETI and ChatGPT and using language models to decipher whale.

Finally, in an effort to give my brain a rest, I kept my reading fairly light over the weekend, and I watched the Disney+ series Ahsoka. And you know what was in that series?

Star whales.

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Real Science Books

gray and black galaxy wallpaper
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In the taxonomy of categories that bookstores–online and physical–provide, the category of “science” is frequently far too broad. For one thing, it is often combined with other categories, as in “Science and technology.” When that happens, the science part seems to lose out.

Each Tuedsay, when new books are released, I head over to Audible to see if there are any new releases I might be interested in. I have a process that I follow. I don’t skim all of the new books. Instead, I skim certain categories. I usually start with “Biographies & Memoirs,” followed by “History” and then “Science & Engineering.” Lately, however, a lot of the books I’ve found listed under “Science & Engineering” are dubiously classified as such.

Growing Lavender for Profit: The Complete Guide to Building a Successful Lavender Business by Aaron Martinez is categorized under Science & Engineering. “Business & Careers” seems like a better category for this book.

Sweet Surprise: A Secret Weight Loss for Over 40, Hormone Balance, Stop Sugar & Refine Carb Cravings, 21 Days Sugar Detox for Your Best Beach Body by Triya Redberg is categorized under Science and Engineering. The only thing that remotely calls to mind “science” in this title is its length. Call me skeptical. This book seems better suited toward “Relationships, Parenting & Personal Development” because of the latter in this catchall category.

There are several survialist books that appear under “Science and Engineering.” I think this is sneaky. We all know that this is not what we mean by science or engineering.

Selling Cars: A Step-by-Step Car Selling Guide for Beginning Used Car Dealers and Entrepreneurs — from a Licensed Car Dealer’s Perspective by Dr. Ezekiel Fierce Zeke is categorized under “Science and Engineering.” Here, I take it that the taxonomers meant “social engineering.”

As far as I know, the authors of these books don’t categorize them themselves, and so they are not at fault for this. Indeed, they may be dismayed at having their books put into the Science and Engineering bucket in the first place. Surely “Self-Help” sells better than science.

Still, fully one third of the new science and engineering books released this week on Audible were not remotely close to what I think of as science and engineering. I feel like science and engineering is getting short shrift here. When I think of books of science, I think of the kind of books that Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov wrote. I think of books by Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think of books by Katie Mack or Sy Montgomery. In short, I think of book that contain ample quantities of, and are mostly about the physical sciences, the scientific method, the history of science and related mathematical branches. Selling used cars, growing lavender for profit, and rapid weight loss are nowhere on this list.

We should be able to do better than this.

Written on March 16, 2022.

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Wanted: Good Books on the Science of Dreaming

The emphasis here is on science. My understanding of current theories of why we dream, based on articles I’ve read in science-based publications like Scientific American, is that dreaming helps convert short-term memories to long-term memory. What I am looking for is a book-length treatise on the science of dreaming. It can be a history of the science: what we’ve learned from our first investigations down to the present; or it can be a book describing the current scientific theories on why we dream, and the mechanisms that influence those dream.

When I search for books on “science of dreaming” I get a lot of noise that seems to divide into two major groupings: (1) how to lucid dream; and (2) how to interpret dreams. I could care less about either of these. I’m not trying to become aware that I am dreaming when I am asleep and to take control and start flying around my dreamscape. Nor do I particularly care about how I might interpret what it is I am dreaming about. Given what I have already read about dreams, the latter is more or less meaningless, the brains reaction to firing neurons while committing memories to longer-term storage. What I want to know more about is the research and study that has gone into dreaming.

I am sleeping better than I used to, and I am grateful for that. But despite sleeping well, I wake from most nights feeling worn out from the endless parade of dreams that I’ve been having over the last several months. These are vague dreams, but they seem to be constantly in the background. I wake from them in the middle of the night only to have them resume after I fall asleep. They are not frightening, or particularly exciting, but they are exhausting and they take away from what could be a really good night’s sleep.

I understand (from what reading I’ve done about dreaming) that we all dream, even if we don’t remember what we dream about. What I am looking for is if there have been studies or research done on what external triggers might effect what I will call the “volume” of dreaming. What I’d like the be able to do is turn down that volume for a while. Ideally, I’d like to mute it. The dreams can continue in the background as they always do, but I’d rather not be aware of them for a while. I just want a good night’s sleep. I’d like to do this, of course, without the aid of any pharmaceuticals.

So, I am looking for books on the science of dreaming. Maybe I should be looking for books on consciousness more broadly, but I have a narrow focus here. So far, I have found two possible candidates: a book called When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold; and The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis.

Does anyone have other recommendations on the science of dreaming? If so, please drop your recommendations into the comments. I’d be grateful.

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Science as an API to Nature

In his recent column in WIRED, Paul Ford has a great metaphor for science, one that really resonates with me as a software developer. He writes,

After a while you realize that science itself is just an API to nature, a bunch of kludges and observations that work well enough to get the job done. The job being measuring reality and predicting what will come next.

The core of what I learned about science came from reading Isaac Asimov, and I always appreciated his apt metaphors that made things easier for me to understand. But I love the simple elegance of Ford’s description. It appeals to me both as a student of science and as a coder.

I’ve always enjoyed Paul Ford’s writings. His 2015 piece, “What Is Code” in Bloomberg is a must-read. I definitely encourage you to check out his column in WIRED.

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Visualizing History and Science

Yesterday, I walked across the Beringia with a branch of Ancestral Native Americans, ancestors to the First Peoples. Later, I boated with them down the western coast of North American, several thousand years earlier. In both cases, I took note of what I saw around me, even though none of that was described in the article I happened to be reading in the May issue of Scientific American. I marveled that this was all happened 15,000 years before what history books typically describe as history. I watched as some of the people stopped to form settlements while others continued south. I watched their struggles a they emerged from colder climates into more mild ones. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I saw an occasional smile, heard and occasional laugh, or a shout of anger.

I can only speak for myself, but this is what happens inside my head when I read. Whether it is a novel, a book on the history of computing, or a science article on genetic and archaeological discoveries about how the Americas were populated, they somehow come alive in my mind. Reading an Isaac Asimov essay on, say, an electron, I am swept into its orbit, where the electron itself appears as a big world. Reading an article on supernovae, I don’t see the words, but instead, I’m hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the unfortunate star, impervious to harm, but able to witness the blast, and see the shock waves forming.

Thinking about those people crossing the land bridge into North America, I imagined them seeing deer flitting about. In my mind, their reaction wasn’t much different than the reaction I had this morning when several deer crossed my path on my morning walk. I paused to observe them, I watched their movements, curious about their behavior.

Maybe this is what is meant when someone is said to be a visual thinker. It is just how my mind has always worked. Science isn’t a bunch of equations and theories in my mind. It is a narrative, a story that unfolds as I read, and one that I see as clearly as I see the stories that unfold from novels, or history, or virtually any other type of reading I do.

When I think about evolution and genetics, it is less about the theories, though I think I understand them quite well, but more about the practice. There is Darwin, hip-deep in muck, collecting samples. There is Mendel, bent over his garden, gnarled hands touching every budding pea plant.

In science articles, timescales often become incomprehensible. How it is possible to imagine 15,000 years, or 14 billion years, when I haven’t even lived half a century? My mind plays little tricks to convey these distances, but I doubt any of them really get the message across in a comprehensible way.

There is so much history and science to read that it seems impossible to come close to scratching the surface on most of it. Perhaps one of the most profound and delightful reveries I have when considering these vast histories is that they are just a spec in the potential histories out in the universe. If other intelligent life exists somewhere else, just think of the histories they carry with them, multiplied over and over again. Are there common threads? Is Romeo and Juliette a uniquely human story? Is the struggle for rational thought a battle fought again and again, in those rare and delectable places, as Throeau once wrote, “in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance”?

We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.

A Journey Back to the Beginning of My Reading List

My copy of From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov

I started keeping a list of books I read back in January 1996, over twenty-five years ago. As of today, there are 1,063 books on the list. I have a simple rule for how a book gets on the list: I have to finish it. If I re-read a book, which I occasionally do, it gets on the list a second (or third) time with a new number. I do re-read books sometimes, although not as often as I used to. Of the 1,063 book on the list, there are about 888 unique titles, meaning that over the course of 25 years, 175 of those 1,063 books were re-reads.

One book I had never re-read was the book that started it all, book #1 on the list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov. Until now, that is. On Sunday I finished a book and had a small gap to fill on Monday. I didn’t want to start a lengthy book because today, the new Stephen King book, Later comes out and I’m eager to read it. So I needed something relatively short, and as I had been reading collections of essays, I figured I’d stick with the theme. I’d go back to the beginning and re-read that first book on the list.

More than 25 years, and 1,062 books intervened between the two readings, but it was a pleasure to read. From Earth to Heaven is a collection of 17 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that used to appear monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–a series that continued for over thirty years and spanned 399 essays. These essays were collected in books in batches of 17. I eventually read all of them, and when I wrote, more than 10 years ago, that almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov, it was to these essays that I was specifically referring.

One of the nice things about these collections is that they are eclectic. You jump from one area of science to another. They are colloquial in tone, amusing, and educational. They also fill in many of the historical gaps that there just isn’t time for in high school and college science classes.

This particular collection covers essays that appeared February 1965 and June 1966. You can imagine, then, that some of the science was dated, but even this has its useful qualities. It is a great example of how science works, that it is progressive, builds upon itself, and is self-correcting: when new information comes to light, it is incorporated into the body of knowledge. Some of these essays refer to neutrinos and gravity waves, neither of which had been detected at the time the essays were written. Still, they provide the historical context for the subsequent discoveries.

The last time I’d read Asimov’s nonfiction was back in the spring of 2005, so I was a bit nervous approaching it more than 15 years later. Would his style hold up to what I remembered, or would it seem dated compared to more contemporary writers of science. Almost at once, my fears were allayed. Asimov’s colloquial style in these essays were just as how I remembered them, as if he was sitting across a restaurant table from me, talking directly to me about a variety of scientific topics.

It didn’t take me long to finish the book, but it was a lot of fun to read, and I’m glad I decided to go back to that book. It reminded me how much I enjoyed those essay collections. They are all still there on my shelves, read for the re-read whensoever the desire take me. That is a comforting feeling.

Science literacy

The Christian Science Monitor has a quiz going around that allows you to test your science literacy. The 50-question quiz was not a particularly easy one. It covered a wide range of sciences including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and mathematics. I took the quiz and ended up answering 43 out of 50 questions correctly. Here are the 7 questions that I got wrong (I won’t tell you the correct answers in case you want to take the quiz yourself):

  • How many nanometers are there in a centimeter? (I was off by 1 order of magnitude.)
  • What is the heaviest noble gas? (I should have known this one.)
  • Named for the 19th century English physicist, what unit of measurement is defined as the energy exerted by the force of one newton acting to move an object through a distance of one meter. (I mistook the nationality of the scientist I selected.)
  • If you were to apply a net force of one Newton on a 200 gram object, what would be the acceleration of the object? (Forgot the formula.)
  • Geologists categorize rocks into three types: Igneous, sedimentary, and what? (Guessed.)
  • Over half the world’s supply of what element, which gets its name from the epithet of the Greek goddess Athena, is used in catalytic converters. (In hindsight, I should have known this based on the Greek epithet hint alone.)
  • In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the size of quanta–denoted as h–is named after what German physicist.

Overall, however, 43 out of 50 isn’t too bad for someone without a degree in a physical or biological science. It amounts to an 86%, or a solid B. That I could manage a solid B in science literacy without having majored in a science is due to three things, I think:

  1. A good science foundation in high school. I took AP biology and AP physics in high school. I took the standard chemistry course. That AP physics course was taught by an outstanding teacher, Dr. Goldman. It was my first introduction to physics and it left a real impression on me.
  2. Isaac Asimov’s science essays. After graduating from college, I gradually made my way through all 399 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) from 1958 through his death in 1992. These essays taught me science in a way that I never learned it in high school or college–from a cumulative, historical perspective. This perspective made many of the concepts much easier to understand because you always started at the beginning, when nobody knew anything about a subject. You could also see the mistakes scientists made along the way and how they recognized them as such and corrected them. I was able to answer a good number of the questions on the quiz because I’d read Asimov’s essays.
  3. Keeping up with science through magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover. Science is constantly evolving and there is no way for any one person to keep up with all of it. But my intent in reading these magazines (aside from the enjoyment I get from them) is to do my best to stay current with the trends and discoveries in all branches of science.

I wonder what the average score on the science literacy test is, but I am almost afraid to ask. I fear that an number I chose that seemed sufficiently low, would turn out to be not low enough.


Great opinion piece by Martin Robbins in the January 30 New Scientist, "Overdosing on nothing", which takes an intelligent, rational approach to the problem of homeopathy.  I agree with the argument put forth, which I think can be condensed to 3 salient points:

  1. The "logic" of homeopathic remedies is severely flawed.
  2. Double-blind studies of homeopathic remedies show they are no more effective than placebo.
  3. There is a danger in perpetuating the idea that homeopath is equivalent to modern medicine, especially when people delay seeking appropriate treatment.


I have recently completed my first year as a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST.  I read every single one of the 51 issues cover-to-cover.  Sometimes I got behind a few issues, but I would always manage to catch up, and I always enjoyed every single issue.  At the same time, I have been a subscriber of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for something like 15 years now.  I also read those issues cover-to-cover.  They are longer, but less frequent, coming monthly rather than weekly.  Between the two magazines, I feel like I have a good understanding of current scientific issues.

Having had a year to read through NEW SCIENTIST (NS), I here are a few thoughts on the differences between it and SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (SA), beginning with a few obvious ones and moving to more subjective ones:

  • NS is a British publication while SA is American
  • NS is weekly, SA is monthly
  • NS typically runs about 50 pages, SA typically runs 80+
  • NS has shorter articles, but it more timely; NS articles are typically written by scientific journalists.  SA has longer, more in depth articles often written by the principal investigators themselves; they articles are less timely.
  • NS is stylistically lighter than SA.  Comments and commentary are often humorous.  SA is more serious (with the exception of the "Anti-Gravity" column.
  • NS has a stronger focus on climate change and global warming than SA.
  • SA has better regular columns (in my opinion) than NS.
  • NS has a better overall format than SA.  SA has recently changed editors and once again changed some of its internal format; I liked it better before the change.

Overall, I’d say I enjoy reading NS more than SA, although I look forward to reading both.  I think that by reading both, I get a balanced view of the world of science and the critical scientific issues of the day.

But I don’t just read them for fun or for improving my knowledge of science.  These magazines provide a wealth of ideas for stories and as a science fiction writer, that may be the most valuable service that they provide to me.

Simulating the universe in a lab

Physicists seem to be constantly simulating the universe in the lab. As a software developer who has written some basic simulations, I wonder how the heck they do this. As a layperson in physics, I wonder what they heck this looks like.

For instance in a NEW SCIENTIST article called "From Big Bang to Big Bounce", we have the following:

He was watchinga simulation of the universe rewind towards the big bang. Mostly the universe behaved as expected, becoming smaller and denser as the galaxies converged.

What does this really mean?  What was this guy really seeing?  Was it simply columns of numbers flying by, giving an array of values corresponding to time intervals?  Was there a graphical aspect to this?  I read about these kind of simulations fairly frequently.  Being able to "simulate the universe" seems like a remarkable feat, but given the size and complexity of the universe, I have a hard time imagining what a simulation would look like.

But I’m genuinely curious.  Does anyone out there know?