Upper bounds

If we play our cards right, we could live hundreds of thousands of years more. In fact, there’s not much stopping us living millions of years. The typical species lives about a million years. Our 200,000 years so far would put us about in our adolescence, just old enough to be getting ourselves in trouble, but not wise enough to have thought through how we should act.

~ Toby Ord from, https://www.edge.org/conversation/toby_ord-we-have-the-power-to-destroy-ourselves-without-the-wisdom-to-ensure-that-we

I find it beneficial to have my perspectives stretched. This article walks through scales of time in a delightful manner. It pauses to ask questions, and to point out people who did certain things at precise points in our history. There are countless opportunities to shift perspective. For example: I’ve been alive for 1/100 of recorded human history. And recorded history is only 3/100 of the age of our species. The aggregate progress of humanity is simply the sum of our individual efforts, and my life represents 1/100,000,000,000 of humanity so far. Stretched perspectives indeed.

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Pasteur’s Quadrant

The core idea of Pasteur’s Quadrant is that basic and applied research are not opposed, but orthogonal. Instead of a one-dimensional spectrum, with motion towards “basic” taking you further away from “applied”, and vice versa, he proposes a two-dimensional classification, with one axis being “inspired by the quest for fundamental understanding” and the other being “inspired by considerations of use”

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/pasteurs-quadrant

I’ve put a bit of thought into research. I’ve certainly considered the two properties of “research for understanding” and “research for application”. But I’ve never thought of them as two dimensions. Click through and check out the simple but illuminating quadrant graph.

And I’m immediately wondering: Can I think of a third dimension upon which to plot research? (Field-of-study comes to mind. Time; The thing being studied, is it something that happens in micro-time like particle physics, or macro-time like geology?) I’m also wondering: what other activities could be plotted in a quadrant? (Writing: insight versus length? Coaching: net change in performance versus time spent training?)

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The germ theory

Thus the germ theory, long before it led to medical treatments, drove down mortality rates by revolutionizing sanitation and hygiene.

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/draining-the-swamp

No, literally draining the swamp. There are a few reasons to click through on that. The most amazing is simply to scroll through the long article and glance at all the graphs; Graphs of magnificent drops in mortality rates by the 1950s. The 50s and 60s were demonstrably amazing simply for the fact that by then, most people weren’t dying of the same infectious things that have been killing people for millennia.

But the little gem quoted above was something that made me pause. Yes, it’s always fun to chuckle from the privileged perspective of the third millennia of the Common Era: The germ theory. *giggles* “Theory.” That’s so cute. What made me pause though was the thought about sanitation. I’d always thought of how the germ theory *giggles* affected medical treatments—washing hands by physicians and surgeons and penicillin and all that good stuff. But the idea that, “hey tiny stuff we can’t see can hurt us… maybe we should, ya know, filter and treat the drinking water?” …it hadn’t occurred to me that that too became a thing we actually started doing because of the germ theory.

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Do not delete!

Many mysteries still surround the issue of what noncoding DNA is, and whether it really is worthless junk or something more. Portions of it, at least, have turned out to be vitally important biologically. But even beyond the question of its functionality (or lack of it), researchers are beginning to appreciate how noncoding DNA can be a genetic resource for cells and a nursery where new genes can evolve.

~ Jake Buehler from, https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-complex-truth-about-junk-dna-20210901/

I knew there were “large” portions of the DNA strand that weren’t [as far as we could tell] important. But 98%? waaaaaaaaat? Also, many other great things in this article—and it’s always nice to link to Quanta Magazine.

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Interconnected

The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one.

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/relationship-of-the-scientific-and-industrial-revolutions

It seems clear to me, (and the article does not disagree,) that the the Scientific Revolution was a necessary precursor to the Industrial. So, “was it necessary?” isn’t a very interesting question.

But the question, “how did it lead to and enable the Industrial revolution?” is a very interesting question. I hadn’t thought about how, specifically, did the one lead to the other. The Scientific Revolution didn’t simply create some sort of encyclopedia of human knowledge, (spread out among all the scientists.) It did that, yes. But it also set things up for the Industrial revolution because suddenly the regular, uneducated people believed the world was knowable and believed that they could tinker, and iterate to improve things.

Which is an interesting point to keep in mind the next time I’m ready to throw my hands up in frustration at some wacky something-or-other.

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It’s the little things

That even though we evolved as ruthless replication machines, we’ve somehow risen out of the muck and we currently find ourselves running cultural software that’s way out of sync with what game theory would dictate, and perhaps we can seize the moment and build a civilization that can tame the brutal dynamics that created us.

~ Dynomight from, https://dynomight.net/about.html

Eliding a long explanation, I’ll just say: I hope that’s still accessible by the time you read this. Also, my normal routine is to bookmark stuff and to later—often much later—write a blog post around it. But not this time. This one caused me to drop what I was doing and blog about it… before even having finished reading it.

You’ll instantly see (once you go there… why are you still here?) why it appeals to me. You’ll be way ahead of the average level of science knowledge if you just skim the list. But the big take-away for me is: It’s not at all hard to find things to be thankful for, and I don’t just mean insanely technical things like that which are on that list. No, I mean…

All you have to do is look around, and start imagining changes. Completely realistic changes. Small changes even. And every single thing that we think, “oh, that’s nice,” becomes something to be thankful for.

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Straight-up magic

The aim of fusion research is to develop a climate- and environmentally-friendly power plant. Similar to the sun, it is to generate energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei. Because the fusion fire only ignites at temperatures above 100 million degrees, the fuel—a low-density hydrogen plasma—must not come into contact with cold vessel walls. Held by magnetic fields, it floats almost contact-free inside a vacuum chamber.

~ Max Planck Society, from https://phys.org/news/2021-08-wendelstein-x-concept-efficiency.html

I’ve been following the phys.org syndication feed for, like 20 years. It kicks out a lot of posts. (About 840 each month in fact. Which I can tell by looking in my account at feedbin.com.) I’ve been watching from afar for decades as we humans try to figure out nuclear fusion.

The sun fuses light elements—Hydrogen mostly—creating slightly heavier elements—Helium mostly. Our bombs and nuclear reactors go in the other direction: They take very rare, very heavy elements—like Uranium-238 which is even more rare than it’s very rare “normal” Uranium that has 235 protons and neutrons in its nucleus—and break them apart releasing an enormous amount of energy. But breaking them apart is fairly easy. Uranium is such a big fat nucleus that it breaks apart on its own. (That’s what Radon gas comes from in your house.) Fission is pretty easy.

Fusion on the other hand is insanely difficult. You have to push two protons very close together before they decide to stick together. But when they do stick you get energy out. Hydrogen only has one proton in it’s nucleus, and the center of the sun is literally a churning soup of protons and free-roaming electrons. Gravity squeezes it more and more. Millions of degrees. Inconceivable pressures. The material is so dense, so opaque, that the light produced by the little Heliums getting created bounces around inside so much, it helps balance the gravitational crushing. In fact, the light that leaves the sun is only a tiny fraction of the energy being generated. Most of it just fights gravity off. Yes, the solar energy reaching Earth is a tiny fraction, of a tiny fraction of the total energy the sun produces.

Yeah. We humans have figured out how to do that. In fact, we have two very different engineering solutions—the “tokomak” and the “Wendelstein 7-X”. They work. We can put cheap, abundant, harmless Hydrogen in and it creates Helium. Yes, with a net outflow of energy. Years ago, we could do it for fractions of a second, but it consumed more energy than we got back out. But now, today, these two devices literally consume Hydrogen and spit out Helium. Pure, magic. You get so much energy out from Fusion, it’d be trivial to split good old water apart… push that little Oxygen in H2O off using electrolosys and send the Oxygen elsewhere. (It has lots of applications.)

Ever see some sci-fi movie where the people find alien technology? They’re all like, “ooooooh, look at this suitcase sized power supply that runs the whole ship” and “how’s that work” and “alien science.”

Yeah. That shit up top there in that phys.org article. BAM! Human science. Pure magic.

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Demonic door operator

A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits.

~ Jonathan O’Callaghan from, https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-maxwells-demon-continues-to-startle-scientists-20210422/

This is a fun, and well-done, description of what started out as a thought-experiment in 1867—that’s 154 years ago—and which after being solved in theory has subsequently been verified by doing literal experiments on lab benches. They’ve built several of the demons, put them to work and shown why entropy always increases. If you’ve heard of “entropy”, but have always scratched your head, then…

…well, to be honest, this cutesie article won’t explain it all. But it will get you a step in the right direction, so long as you don’t mind the demon working the door.

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Diatoms

Diatoms are a major group of algae found in the oceans, waterways and soils of the world. Living diatoms make up a significant portion of the Earth’s biomass: they generate about 20 to 50 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet each year, […] and constitute nearly half of the organic material found in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can reach as much as a half-mile (800 m) deep on the ocean floor, and the entire Amazon basin is fertilized annually by 27 million tons of diatom shell dust transported by transatlantic winds from the African Sahara.

~ From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatom

I had grasped long ago that diatoms where single-cellular plants. But somehow I missed the, “with shells,” bit. Diatomaceous earth suddenly makes sense. I had always pictured the microscopic little individual diatoms that I’d seen in books; various shapes and sizes, floating in water. But I hadn’t imagined the shapes, structures and types of shells they’re building out of silicon! Turns out, people interested in nanotechnology are particularly interested in diatoms. Wonders never cease.

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Foucault’s Pendulum

Over on the Astronomy Stack Exchange site, (obviously I follow the “new questions” feed in my RSS reader,) someone asked if it was possible, without knowing the date, to determine one’s latitude only by observing the sun. These are the sorts of random questions that grab me by the lapels and shake me until an idea falls out.

So my first thought was: Well if you’re in the arctic or antarctic polar circles you could get a good idea… when you don’t see the sun for a few days. Also, COLD. But that feels like cheating and doesn’t give a specific value. Which left me with this vague feeling that it would take me several months of observations. I could measure the highest position of the sun over the passing days and months and figure out what season I was in…

…wait, actually, I should be able to use knowledge of the Coriolis Force—our old friend that makes water circle drains different in the northern and southern hemispheres, and is the reason that computers [people who compute] were first tasked with complex trigonometry problems when early artillery missed its targets because ballistics “appear” to curve to do this mysterious force because actually the ground rotates . . . where was I?

Coriolis Force, right. But wait! I don’t need the sun at all! All I need is a Foucault Pendulum and some trigonometry… Here I went to Wikipedia and looked it up—which saved me the I’m-afraid-to-actually-try-it hours of trying to derive it in spherical trig… anyway. A Foucault Pendulum exhibits rotation of the plane of the pendulum’s swing. Museums have these multi-story pendulums where the hanging weight knocks over little dominos as it rotates around. Cut to the chase: You only need to be able to estimate the sine function, and enough hours to measure the rotation rate of the swing-plane and you have it all; northern versus southern hemisphere and latitude.

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