Inflight Science: A Guide to the World From Your Airplane Window

Here’s a link to background on today’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday broadcast on NPR. The guest is Brian Clegg, author of a new book, Inflight Science: A Guide to the World From Your Airplane Window.

You can get the podcast of the show later today from the NPR website.

The book looks like a good stocking-stuffer.

Apollo 11: Before eAPIS

Since May 2009, general aviation pilots departing from or flying into the U.S. must submit detailed information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and receive permission to take off. The process, called eAPIS (Electronic Advance Passenger Information System), involves filling out forms online and waiting for what amounts to an email departure or arrival visa. posted a funny item in 2009 about the return of the Apollo 11 crew from the Moon. As a joke, they filled out a customs declaration (see below) that noted the rocks and dust they were importing. Note also the health declaration:

“Any other condition on board that may lead to the spread of disease: To be determined.”


Alchemy Lives!

Wired has published its Vaporware 2007 awards. Coming in at number 10 is the Orbo, a device that, according to the developer’s Web site:

…produces free, clean and constant energy – that is our claim. By free we mean that the energy produced is done so without recourse to external source. By clean we mean that during operation the technology produces no emissions. By constant we mean that with the exception of mechanical failure the technology will continue to operate indefinitely.

The secret behind this amazing device? From  the company’s Web site: "Orbo is based upon the principle of time variant magneto-mechanical interactions."

I don’t know what that means, but I wouldn’t be surprised if dilithium crystals are involved.

image Reading the claims and the The Steorn Validation Process, I was immediately reminded of Charles Mackay’s wonderful book, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

First published in 1851 and later issued under the title Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it remains in print today, a Plutarch’s Lives of "astrologers, necromancers, sorcerers, geomancers, and all those who pretended to discover futurity; and…dealers in charms, amulets, philters, universal-panacea mongers…."

Chapter 4, "The Alchymists," is most relevant to this topic. Among the many case studies Mackay describes is one George Ripley, the canon of Bridlington, in Yorkshire.

He studied for twenty years in the universities of Italy, and was a great favourite with Pope Innocent VIII, who made him one of his domestic chaplains, and master of the ceremonies in his household. Returning to England in 1477, he dedicated to King Edward IV his famous work, The Compound of Alchymy; or, the Twelve Gates leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. These gates he described to be calcination, solution, separation, conjunction, putrefaction, congelation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, and projection; to which he might have added botheration, the most important process of all (4.36)

"Congelation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, and projection"? Might as well be "time variant magneto-mechanical interactions." (According to the OED, congelation is "the action of congealing or freezing"; cibation is "feeding the matter; taking food.")

Alas, it appears that Orbo’s public debut did not go well:

Further to Steorn’s announcement yesterday (5th July) regarding the technical difficulties experienced during the installation of its “Orbo” technology at the Kinentica [sic] Museum in London, Steorn has decided to postpone the demonstration until further notice.

Sean McCarthy CEO stated that “technical problems arose during the installation of the demonstration unit in the display case on Wednesday evening. These problems were primarily due to excessive heat from the lighting in the main display area. Attempts to replace those parts affected by the heat led to further failures and as a result we have to postpone the public demonstration until a future date.”

He continued that “we apologise for the inconvenience caused to all the people who had made arrangements to visit the demonstration or were planning on viewing the demonstration online.”

Over the next few weeks the company will explore alternative dates for the public demonstration.

More on Science and Islam

Today’s NY Times features a front-page story, "Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert," about King Abdullah’s plans for a $12.5 billion University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. The story notes in part, "The king is lavishing the institution not only with money, but also with his full political endorsement, intended to stave off internal challenges from conservatives and to win over foreign scholars who doubt that academic freedom can thrive here."

The story makes for an interesting read, especially in light of my earlier entry about Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The Lighter Side of Science

Yesterday’s Big Post About Science was awfully serious. As he often does, my college roommate, Philip Austin (today an associate professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Programme at the University of British Columbia), reminded me that science is fun, too. Phil’s a dedicated, very smart fellow, one of those remarkable scientists who reads widely, writes gracefully (OK, his scientific papers can get a little dense) and persuasively, and is engaged with the real world. Today’s email included a message from Phil with a link to a hilarious story, "Scientists Ask Congress to Fund $50 Billion Science Thing," from The Onion. As Phil noted, you’ll want to pay special attention to the graphic "Giant Machine Creates Science."

Science and Islamic World?

Today’s cast of my RSS net collected the usual detritus from the Web. But among the haul of news and trivia, I found one remarkable item from Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement by Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Hoodbhoy states his thesis as a question early in the essay:

The question I want to pose—perhaps as much to myself as to anyone else—is this: With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?

…It was not always this way. Islam’s magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine. The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body’s circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities. But with the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.

You can read Hoodbhoy’s extended, thoughtful, and revealing answer to that specific question yourself (and you can find more of Hoodbhoy’s essays here and here). But two key passages in his paper state the problem more generally and suggest its implications beyond the Muslim world.

First, Hoodbhoy notes,

Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As science becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its achievements inspire both awe and fear. Creationism and intelligent design, curbs on genetic research, pseudoscience, parapsychology, belief in UFOs, and so on are some of its manifestations in the West.

To confirm Hoodbhoy’s point, you have only to recall recent candidates’ debates; when asked if they did not “believe” in evolution by means of natural selection, Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls eagerly thrust their hands in air.

Hoodbhoy later states the core issue more specifically:

It’s the thought that counts

…At the base lies the yet unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior.

That assertion needs explanation. No grand dispute, such as between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, is holding back the clock. Bread-and-butter science and technology requires learning complicated but mundane rules and procedures that place no strain on any reasonable individual’s belief system. A bridge engineer, robotics expert, or microbiologist can certainly be a perfectly successful professional without pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Truly fundamental and ideology-laden issues confront only that tiny minority of scientists who grapple with cosmology, indeterminacy in quantum mechanical and chaotic systems, neuroscience, human evolution, and other such deep topics. Therefore, one could conclude that developing science is only a matter of setting up enough schools, universities, libraries, and laboratories, and purchasing the latest scientific tools and equipment.

But the above reasoning is superficial and misleading. Science is fundamentally an idea-system that has grown around a sort of skeleton wire frame—the scientific method. The deliberately cultivated scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all science and related fields where critical judgment is essential. Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.

Wolpert There’s the rub. It’s the subject of Lewis Wolpert’s wonderful The Unnatural Nature of Science, Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins, and Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries by Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. And the fundamental (I use that word advisedly) argument is hardly new. C.P. Snow famously raised similar issues in 1959 in The Two Cultures.

The mathematician Jacob Bronowski played a variation on the theme in, among other works, his lyrical Science and Human Values (1956; revised and expanded in 1962). It’s worth quoting Bronowski, if only to encourage you to read his books (even if some of his delightful metaphors have been overrun by technology):

What is the insight with which the scientist tries to see into nature? Can it indeed be called either imaginative or creative? To the literary man the question may seem merely silly. He has been taught that science is a large collection of facts; and if this is true, then the only seeing which scientists need do is, he supposes, seeing the facts. He pictures them, the colorless professionals of science, going off to work in the morning into the universe in a neutral, unexposed state. They then expose themselves like a photographic plate. And then in the darkroom or laboratory they develop the image, so that suddenly and startlingly it appears, printed in capital letters, as a new formula for atomic energy…

The readers of Christopher Isherwood do not take him literally when he writes “I am a camera.” Yet the same readers solemnly carry with them from their schooldays this foolish picture of the scientist fixing by some mechanical process the facts of nature. I have had of all people a historian tell me that science is a collection of facts, and his voice had not even the ironic rasp of one filing cabinet reproving another. (10–11)

But to wander back to that fundamental point: A society (or culture) “…in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.”

We in the West may smugly assume (despite evidence exposed each day on television news and in the newspapers) that such attitudes prevail only in the Middle East. But read, for example, the doctrinal statement of Liberty University, which states in part:

We affirm that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, though written by men, was supernaturally inspired by God so that all its words are the written true revelation of God; it is therefore inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters. It is to be understood by all through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, its meaning determined by the historical, grammatical, and literary use of the author’s language, comparing Scripture with Scripture.

Hoodbhoy stated his question too narrowly, and we focus only on Islam at our peril.