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Rarely There

A collection of discourses - myriad, profound, uplifting...
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Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Longitude, Ignorance

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

Here's a book that has to be read in installments, savoring every detail, smiling quietly at the humorous presentation, sitting down awe-struck at the staggering amount of information we inadvertently absorb from it.

The title says it all - cosmology, geology (when geology wasn't even legitimate discipline on its own), chemistry, physics, life sciences...  the book is packed with history of the sciences, liberally strewn with anecdotes about the great minds throughout history who dedicated their lives to get one step closer to understanding our universe and how we fit in it.

This is the kind of book I wish I had read as a high schooler struggling to see the bigger picture, trying to figure out how all that I've been taught fit together, while at the same time getting a feel for the lives of the great minds.

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
by Dava Sobel

I came across this book as it was referenced in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Not necessarily in glowing light, but, intriguing nonetheless.

The Longitude problem was a huge one, one that stumped great minds of that time, one whose solution would immensely ease the lives of sea-faring folk.

Latitude was well established. Going 15 degrees eastwards takes us one hour ahead in local time, and going 15 degrees westwards puts local time one hour behind from our starting point. So, in addition to latitude, if we can know the local times at two different points on Earth, we can calculate how far apart those places are in longitude.

Growing up with GPS, today's children have no idea of the time when most of the ocean was uncharted and finding one's relative position was made all the more difficult  not knowing the longitude.

The subtitle describes the tone of this book: it is all about John Harrison, an incredibly gifted watch-maker who had no scientific background or training, yet dedicated his entire life to making an accurate mechanical  clock that would keep the time on sea.

While the rest of the learned folk turned to the skies for a celestial solution, Harrison quietly focused on designing and building a reliable chronometer.

Clocks were notorious for losing time in those days, even on land - temperature, pressure affected their performance - so, add to it the pitching and rocking in the seas and the extremes of weather, there was no way any of the clocks of that time could be relied on.

Galileo and Newton bent their minds towards this problem with no success. The British government got desperate enough to form a Board of Longitude, offering a hefty reward for the best solution.

Although it reads more like a human interest story, rather long drawn out and repetitive without additional value, the book is an interesting read, even if quite biased, possibly muddling the intentions and abilities of the other giants involved in the story.

Not much is shared about the inner workings of  H1, H2, H3, H4 and why it made them better - possibly because it was never blue-printed and shared by Harrison voluntarily; and there are not many pictures or images to help the reader recognize the beauty of this instrument.

[image source:]

Ignorance: How It Drives Science
by Stuart Firestein

The author argues that ignorance, not knowledge, drives science. Not the willful ignorance that is empty of knowledge but the belief in seeking the unknowable, realizing that one answer raises a hundred new unanswerable questions, and that mysteries allow for possibilities hitherto not entertained.

"Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome."

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Phrenology, Gödel's challenge to completeness of mathematics... allowing for a possibility even if it seems improbable is the result of acknowledging ignorance - we cannot already know everything there is to know.

"It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room— especially when there is no cat."

The book is full of anecdotes and cases supporting the author's ideas. A very engaging and thought-provoking read on what drives science and motivates scientists.

"Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle."

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