Sunday, October 16, 2011

Argon - or, are you certain about that error?

This is just a brief posting in aid of our on-going study of "the Scientific Method", about which we are slowly collecting ideas and relations of those ideas in order to more fully grasp the mystery of Science Writ Large. Whether it will aid us in doing better work in our labs, or in our lab write-ups, or just make us feel a greater measure of delight - well, I cannot say. It is useful to collect these items, and eventually we will knit them together into an orderly unity. It may not become a CRC Handbook or even a Dover reprint - indeed, it may be that they will never leave this blogg and the E-cosmos - but at least we will have seen some new things, or (even better) re-seen some old things.

Today, I do not mean to suggest some sort of appeal to Heisenberg. I am speaking several orders of magnitude larger than that. I could take a chapter - or another book in the series - to talk about error, whether it be the formal sort of measurement, or the more formal sort of mis-shapen logic, or the idiosyncratic kind that comes from round-off in calculators and computers - or just plain human sloppiness, which we are all prone to. It is a fascinating study - as fascinating as disease is to a physician, who has in mind his own frailty.

The strange thing about error is that it too deserves to be considered - no, not in the sense that we invert our purpose - I do not mean taking on a heretical view for the sake of achieving a novel viewpoint! I mean error in the more common scientific sense, those little "plus-or-minus" sorts of things we see all the time in the tables and charts of lab reports or journal articles. We have to keep those odd little gaps in mind, lest truth be hiding there.

Note!!! This is where our language gets in the way. "Error" is often (especially in philosophy and theology) understood as "the negation of truth". In science, the sort of error I am speaking of may be more often expressed as the "imprecision in a measurement."

I have selected a most interesting little excerpt for your consideration today - a tale that suggests how important it is that we consider those "imprecisions" as places which deserve fuller exploration:
The instances taken from nineteenth-century physics could be multiplied at some length to illustrate the fundamental importance that increased precision in experiments plays in establishing new laws or theories. Ohm's law, the laws of radiation, the gas laws, to mention only a few, were but triumphs in precision. The establishment of well-equipped physical laboratories, first in German and French and later in British universities, clearly evidenced the general recognition of the extraordinary importance precision has in physics. The rewards were at times spectacular, particularly when unknown entities, such as new elements, were discovered. The case of argon was perhaps the most characteristic, resting as it did on the worries of Ramsay and Rayleigh as to why some samples of nitrogen had a weight of 1.257 grams per liter instead of only 1.256. As it turned out, an unknown element, after its discovery called argon, caused this discrepancy. The identification of other inert gases followed in quick succession.
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 254-5]

P.S. If any of our chemist readers can give a fuller reference to this interesting work, I would appreciate it.

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