Posts tagged with science

Over the last century-and-a-half, mathematicians found every possible multiplication table.

The largest irreducible multiplication-table, dubbed the Monster Group, contains


interlocking pieces.

That’s like the number of atoms in Jupiter.

Richard Borcherds

(modified by me)


We eat energy and poop entropy.
Stephen C Stearns

English predominantly talks about time as if it were horizontal, while Mandarin … commonly describes time as vertical.

Lera BoroditskyDoes Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time


see also

  • Jenn-Yeu ChenDo Chinese and English speakers think about time differently? Failure of replicating Boroditsky (2001)
    By estimating the frequency of usage, we found that Chinese speakers actually use the horizontal spatial metaphors more often than the vertical metaphors.

Answer by Jay Wacker:

Expect writing to be a lot harder than you imagine.  What no one tells you when you’re a young and upcoming scientist is that communication is 90% of the job of being a professional scientist.

What this means is that you should take your writing, and also your speaking, as a core part of your profession, not some auxiliary aspect to your job as a scientist.   Ed Witten is amazing for his technical achievements, but as you get more experience with writing, you’ll be flabbergasted by his [writing] ability….  The ability to write amazingly well is a distinguishing characteristic amongst many of the greatest high energy theorists such as Steven Weinberg, Lenny Susskind, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Savas Dimopoulos, and so on and so forth.

This need for good communication skills is a problem for many young scientists, because frequently there was this false dichotomy between being “science & math”-y versus “english & art”-y.  Oftentimes language skills are simply not developed very thoroughly in students with strong science and math aptitudes during secondary school and university.  Oftentimes I found that my graduate students were having to focus on communication for the first time halfway through graduate school.  This is even more true for speaking ability where most people have never taken a class in speech, debate, etc.  

Just to drive home the importance of this, I’ve been told of studies of success amongst physics graduate students is better determined by the verbal GRE than the physics GRE.   

View Answer on Quora

Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.

Werner von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever

cf, this

  • WP on WvB:

…von Braun was the central figure in the Nazis’ rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket…. After the war, … taken to the United States…. Von Braun worked on the ... intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program… … direct[ed] the …Marshall Space Flight Center … chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.


UPDATE: I guess my own (ironic) interpretation of this statement is not as obvious as I’d hoped. Subtlety is maybe not the best for quick-glance-react-reblog medium such as tumblr. My reactions are:

  1. Of course someone who used science for evil would say that science has no moral dimension. Rockets are a great example of science with primarily military applications, although perhaps (argues the casuist) someday Amazon will deliver goods to our houses with rocket-based technology!
  2. Pretending you aren’t responsible for how your research is used is immature.

    We can of course differentiate {a} people who couldn’t have known their research would be used for violent purposes, {b} people whose research is “for” peaceful purposes (such as communications) but can be used by military, {c} only when combined with other research, can the products of your work be put to violent ends, and {d} somehow there’s no way military could possibly do violence with this (such as social-psychology research perhaps).

    I wouldn’t suggest either that researching something completely useless, so useless it can’t help the military or civilians, is blameless either. In fact as adults we can critically assess and debate the culpability of various individuals. I would argue that everyone is covered in sin insofar as no-one continually does the most ethical thing at all times through all points of their life (nor do we know what that is).
  3. There are plenty of historical examples of mathematics and science being funded by war. Cryptonomicon, trigonometry in catapults, the canard of Archimedes and the parabolic mirrors, and of course the Manhattan Project. (Famously among mathematicians, Grothendieck saw physics as evil because it had produced the Atom Bomb.) Look at rich zip codes in the eastern USA you’ll notice Skaneatles Lake in upstate New York.
    This is the country with by far the largest military spending in the world and one of their biggest defence contractors—Lockheed-Martin—has a big facility in, you guessed it, Skaneatles Lake. If I take the time later I’ll fish some photos showing how nice it probably is and how not-nice is Gary Indiana
    , birthplace of world-class entertainer Michael Jackson whose hometown does not produce missiles.
  4. I’m not suggesting you need to be a limp dovey peacenik. If you are the appropriate sort of engineer with the appropriate permits and you hate the Iraqis, the Japanese, the Afghanis, the North Koreans, whoever—then design that bomb and don’t lie about what it’s going to be used for. However it’s disingenuous in the extreme to sell dynamite to a terrorist and deny you had any clue what he was going to do with it.

Here are the tweets of a scientist confronting the real dilemma he faces:

Anyway: no, sticking your head in the sand does not constitute an ethical position.  Maybe you’re doing wrong. Maybe you’re not doing very wrong. Maybe you’re doing something that is both good and evil. Maybe you’re doing something that’s evil only under some perspectives. At least consider it, from time to time. Don’t pretend “Science is always neutral”—that’s a wishful dream. Invent the Atom Bomb in wartime and pretend you’re not part of the war effort? Please. I don’t think scientists owe the world both their work and a fully fleshed out, consistent ethical system. But, no, science does not get to be “neutral” by fiat.

(((Nor do I get to be “neutral” simply by never having studied to be a weapons engineer. Since I don’t actively spend time working to right the wrongs of the world I’m also culpable, not just on the issue of violence or war but on many things. I don’t even spend enough time doing good that I could say I’m too busy solving one problem to work on the others. I’m simply a bad person. One can derive from economics 101 —from the ideas behind opportunity cost—that culpability extends far and wide—and I intend to write a separate article about that.)))


[Scientific theories can be accurate and even make novel predictions, whilst being ultimately wrong. Scientific theories can also be inaccurate, whilst being ultimately right.]

Consider specifically the state of ætherial theories in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The electrical fluid, a substance which was generally assumed to accumulate on the surface rather than permeate the interstices of bodies, had been utilized to explain inter alia the attraction of oppositely charged bodies, the behavior of the Leyden jar, the similarities between atmospheric and static electricity and many phenomena of current electricity.

Within chemistry and heat theory, the caloric æther … explain[ed] everything from the role of heat in chemical reactions to the conduction & radiation of heat and … standard problems of thermometry.

Within the theory of light, the optical æther functioned centrally in explanations of reflection, refraction, interference, double refraction, diffraction and polarization. (Of more than passing interest, optical æther theories had … made … startling[, true] predictions, e.g., Fresnel’s prediction of a bright spot at the center of the shadow of a circular disc: a surprising prediction which, when tested, proved correct. If that does not count as empirical success, nothing does!)

There were also gravitational (e.g., LeSage’s) and physiological (e.g., Hartley’s) æthers which enjoyed some measure of empirical success. It would be difficult to find a family of theories in this period which were as successful as æther theories. Compared to them, 19th century atomism … a genuinely referring theory … was a dismal failure. Indeed, on any account of empirical success which I can conceive of, non-referring 19th-century æther theories were more successful than contemporary, referring atomic theories.

[According to] J.C. Maxwell…the æther was better confirmed than any other theoretical entity in natural philosophy!

Larry Laudan’s A Confutation of Convergent Realism, Philosophy of Science, 48(1), 19-49

via David Corfield

The Pernicious Influence of Mathematics on Science by Jack Schwartz

from a volume of unconventional essays convened by Reuben Hersh

  • single-mindedness, literal-mindedness, simple-mindedness
  • The mathematician converts the scientist’s ideas into axioms. The danger, then, is that the mathematician may convince the scientist that the axioms are true.
  • Science must deal with the unknown or imprecisely known, but mathematics must begin from a precise starting point.
  • absurdities in uniform
  • the sorry history of the Dirac Delta function
  • bad theory with a mathematical passport
  • science leaps ahead whilst mathematics plods behind
  • mathematics can deal only with simple things

reminds me of something @zentree tweeted: mathematics making biologists understand their own science less