Thursday, October 20, 2011

If only you had been more careful in your work, you might have discovered a planet!

Last time we heard from Father Jaki about probing into an apparent discrepancy in the third place to the right of the decimal, and how it related to ths discovery of argon.

Today, let's hear from another writer - one of the most wonderful and relevant (and brief) chapters I have ever read in any science text - one on which I hope one day to preach a lecture or three. It deserves to be studied, and ought to be copied and read at the start of every academic year, and proclaimed annually in every laboratory! Yes, really.

Here is just one of its dramatic paragraphs:
In the history of astronomy can be found numerous cautionary tales which illustrate the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope. No fewer than 19 pre-discovery observations of Uranus have been identified, from 1690 (by Flamsteed) onward. It is true that many of these in no way reflect upon the technique of the observers, since a single observation would quite possibly not reveal its planetary character. [*] But that none of theese observations should have led to the discovery of Uranus is incredible. The case that is most relevant to thematter of observational records concerns the French astronomer Lemonnier, who in January 1796 observed Uranus six times over a period of nine days, including observations on four consecutive nights. His records of observations were kept in a particularly untidy and unsystematic fashion (one of the Uranus observations was noted down on a paper bag that had contained hair powder), and this certainly contributed to his failure: in a well-kept record the anomalies between these nine observations cold not have failed to strike him - and he would have anticipated Herschel in the first planetary discovery of historical times by twelve years.

* On the other hand Herschel detected its non-stellar character before its motion had been established.

[J. B. Sidgwick, Amateur Astronomer's Handbook, Section 32: Observational Records]
Please read that again, and ponder this in particular:
...the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope.
Don't be thinking of getting your name into the books. Think of the fact that you may have abandoned your humility - your childlike attitude towards Reality, and substituted Superstition - or belief in Phlogiston, which is the same thing. (If you don't know what that is, I suggest you look it up.) Remember, even the great Maxwell was caught:
For it is one thing to propose an inference as being very plausible and another to assert its reality and in the least uncertain terms at that. In this respect even a Maxwell could not avoid the pitfalls set by an unquestioning faith in mechanism. ... "There can be no doubt," he asserted categorically, that the ether "is certainly the largest body of which we have any knowledge."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 80-81 quoting JCM's "Ether" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica]
And, no, he was not talking about an organic chemical with an oxygen between two other groups, like (C2H5)2O. (Ahem, a little chemical humor there, hee hee.)

Let us use caution and DILIGENCE! Yes, diligo = "I love"... it is our choice, our selection... and we ought to be fervent in our work. Let us LOVE Reality, our cosmos, our work... and our God Who made it, and our fellow humans for whom we do such work: "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you did it for Me" - and that will include even our research as long as we have done it well, and for the sake of our common humanity, rather than out of pride or selfishness.

Yes, to the shock of many professors, and even more administrators, there's a deep truth lurking in "publish or perish" and it is not associated with tenure or professional status. Another day we'll explore where St. Paul spoke on this topic - it's stunning...

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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Rosary - our Experimental Lab for the Gospels

Yes, this posting is relevant to our on-going (if slow and sporadic) series on the Scientific Method, and to that grand Jaki phrase "Science writ large". Even if it seems to be a rather Catholic thing, or a rather "prayer" thing, and not science at all.

That's because people have begun to have a very narrow view of science, and do not see the lab for the test tubes - or the web pages. They forget WHY there are such things as experiments, and what it is we are doing, and why we are doing it. That's also why there is such a thing as the rosary, as strange as it must sound. As Chesterton liked to point out, it's about vision:
...the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
[GKC Tremendous Trifles]
There is a fascinating connection between the words "experience" and "experiment" - and the Latin word "periculum" from which we get the English word "peril" - that is, danger.

This is why I have said the first virtue of a Scientist is humility. He must be willing to submit to dangers - the first and worst is that WE MIGHT HAVE GUESSED WRONG ABOUT REALITY. Hence, we devise a scheme, submitting ourselves (No, emphatically not the things in the lab!) - that is, our mental image of reality - to danger by risking another look at Reality. We do this for many reasons, perhaps most would say it's out of curiousity, but it may be better for our moral health to say that we do it out of humility. We are not building a story. (As fun as that can be, and I can tell you it's REALLY fun! And cheaper than buying toy trains and all that.) We are hoping to know more - to get some clue about Reality, just as a sculptor carefully chisels out the marble, we carefully chisel out our mental constructions and models - but just as the scupltor continually corrects his work by shifting his gaze, his lights, his angles - perhaps on occasion even touching the relevant region - so too we require a continual feedback of data. We must spur ourselves to that single activity of seeing.

The same is true for the Rosary. This convenient hand-held tool - imagine a hand-held lab! - provides us with all the machinery necesary to make ever deeper explorations of the Mystery of the God-Made-Man, Jesus Christ. You may say, why should a religious activity - an activity of prayer - a rather specifically Catholic activity, and perhaps a quarrelsome and argumentative one - why should THAT be an exemplar for Scientists?

Because it reveals the nature of experiment. It is "experiencing" something - yes, the same thing, but my God, how many experiments have been repeated over the course of centuries! In fact, that is one of the signal trademarks (the Signs, if you will) of a good experiment: its repeatability. It begins to answer the question: why do an experiment?

To find out more - even if it's something we've already done before.

We are not "mindlessly repeating" something - no, just the opposite. It is a most mindful repetition: we proceed with care, with diligence, with attention - we check our equipment, we check our references, we see what others (both authorities and other workers on the topic) have to say about the matter... and, as the famous "Sir Henry Merrivale" (the detective in the mystery stories by Carter Dickson, pseudonym of John Dickson Carr) liked to say we do some "sittin' and thinkin'".

That is, we MEDITATE. No, this is not the "eastern" form of meditation, which is a sort of emptying of the mind. This is as opposite as one can be: it is the extreme presence of mind, bringing our complete mental personality to bear upon the matter, hoping, perhaps almost desperately, to find (like that sculptor) that perfect vantage point... and thereby gain a better view of Reality.

So do you mean I pray while I experiment? Or experiment while I pray?

For me, they are interconvertible. I have enough doubts about my abilities to keep reasonably to the task at hand, but there is a sense of Awe about this... that by learning more about That Which Is, I learn more about He Who Made That Which Is.

And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? Or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him? ... But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice: and all these things shall be added unto you.
[Luke 11:11-13, 12:31]

Yes, even to the most technical and dull gear and data and equations of the laboratory... All of those things also proclaim the glory of God, creator of heaven and earth:
And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne and to the Lamb, benediction and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever.
[Apo/Rev 5:13]


P.S. I should add that the reason for calling the rosary the handheld lab of the Gospels is simply that by stepping through the various major episodes of the Life of Our Lord and concentrating on them slowly in a ritual (one might say "according to standard lab protocols) we advance into a greater knowledge and understanding of His life - a real life, in our real world, of which there is always more to See...

P.P.S. Above you will find the word "diligence". This is most often understood as meaning "careful" or something similar. I think it might be good to point out its original meaning is "to love, esteem"... we ought to pray and experiment from Love. This will sound goofy, if not downright silly - but that's because there is very little meaning left in "Love" in our day. What a shame. But don't you love to learn more about Reality? You should...