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Saturday, December 09, 2006

". . . being dead, yet speaketh." Science

My wife saw a quote from a previous post of mine, which said this:

"I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago." (source)

She told me that she wanted to know some of the statements that seem addressed to me. In other words, who speaks to me, though dead? (Hebrews 11:4, KJV, says "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.")

In the first installment of this series, I quoted 10 brief sections from the Bible which particularly speak to me. In the second installment, I posted quotations from three of my favorite dead authors of fantastic literature, all of them Christians, namely George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis.

Quotations from science are more difficult. Science typically depends on periodical articles, many of them so specialized that even scientists reading outside their own area find them difficult to understand. Most scientists of the twenty-first century have never read Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein, whereas, in literature and theology, as I understand it, it is important to read the classics. Nonetheless, below are some important quotations from the literature of science. (The quotations are in black. Various reference and explanatory material is in this color.)

Galileo accepted the inerrancy of Scripture; but he was also mindful of Cardinal Baronius's quip that the bible "is intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." "The Galileo Affair," by

And so, after postulating movements, which, farther on in the book, I ascribe to the Earth, I have found by many and long observations that if the movements of the other planets are assumed for the circular motion of the Earth and are substituted for the revolution of each star, not only do their phenomena follow logically therefrom, but the relative positions and magnitudes both of the stars and all their orbits, and of the heavens themselves, become so closely related that in none of its parts can anything be changed without causing confusion in the other parts and in the whole universe. Therefore, in the course of the work I have followed this plan: I describe in the first book all the positions of the orbits together with the movements which I ascribe to the Earth, in order that this book might contain, as it were, the general scheme of the universe. Thereafter in the remaining books, I set forth the motions of the other stars and of all their orbits together with the movement of the Earth, in order that one may see from this to what extent the movements and appearances of the other stars and their orbits can be saved, if they are transferred to the movement of the Earth. Nor do I doubt that ingenious and learned mathematicians will sustain me, if they are willing to recognize and weigh, not superficially, but with that thoroughness which Philosophy demands above all things, those matters which have been adduced by me in this work to demonstrate these theories. In order, however, that both the learned and the unlearned equally may see that I do not avoid anyone's judgment, I have preferred to dedicate these lucubrations of mine to Your Holiness rather than to any other, because, even in this remote corner of the world where I live, you are considered to be the most eminent man in dignity of rank and in love of all learning and even of mathematics, so that by your authority and judgment you can easily suppress the bites of slanderers, albeit the proverb hath it that there is no remedy for the bite of a sycophant. If perchance there shall be idle talkers, who, though they are ignorant of all mathematical sciences, nevertheless assume the right to pass judgment on these things, and if they should dare to criticise and attack this theory of mine because of some passage of scripture which they have falsely distorted for their own purpose, I care not at all; I will even despise their judgment as foolish. Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, public domain, 1543, from the dedication to Pope Paul III. The Wikipedia article on the history of science says that this book, claiming that the earth was not the center of the universe, began the scientific revolution.

Our design not respecting arts, but philosophy, and our subject not manual but natural powers, we consider chiefly those things which relate to gravity, levity, elastic force, the resistance of fluids, and the like forces, whether attractive or impulsive; and therefore we offer this work as the mathematical principles of philosophy; for all the difficulty of philosophy seems to consist in this – from the phenomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phenomena; and to this end the general propositions in the first and second book are directed. In the third book we give an example of this in the explication of the System of the World; for by the propositions mathematically demonstrated in the former books, we in the third derive from the celestial phenomena the forces of gravity with which bodies tend to the sun and the several planets. Then from these forces, by other propositions which are also mathematical, we deduce the motions of the planets, the comets, the moon, and the sea. I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles; for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards each other, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from each other; which forces being unknown, philosophers have hitherto attempted the search of nature in vain; but I hope the principles here laid down will afford some light either to this or some truer method of philosophy. Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, public domain, 1687. This passage is from the Preface to the first edition. Newton was a philosopher, in his own eyes, and scientific journals weren't as important in his day, hence the introduction of Newton's ideas in this book, rather than in a journal article. This book, more than any other, founded classical physics. The Wikipedia article on the history of science says that this book completed the scientific revolution.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, public domain, 1859. This is the last paragraph of that book. Note that Darwin said "originally breathed into a few forms or into one," thus allowing for Divine creation.

I did not think; I investigated." Wilhelm Roentgen, on his thoughts when he first discovered X-rays, from an interview with McClure's Magazine, May 1, 1896. Ideally, scientists don't have preconceived ideas about what they will find, but just let the facts take them where they will. In practice, of course, that isn't always true.

Sometimes, as Max Planck observed, and Thomas S. Kuhn quoted (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Wikipedia article on that book, accessed 12/07/2006) p. 151):
"a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
Thomas S. Kuhn was a historian of science. The quotation encapsulates the idea of his book, namely that science doesn't "progress" (he didn't use that word) by adding experiment to experiment, but by sudden leaps, or scientific revolutions, when some scientist has a revolutionary insight, such as Newton's (possibly legendary) sudden revelation, when seeing an apple fall from a tree, that gravity is an attractive force. The following quote is from a man who is not known for the experiments he did, except those he did in his own head:

The basal principle, which was the pivot of all our previous considerations, was the special principle of relativity, i.e. the principle of the physical relativity of all uniform motion. Let as once more analyse its meaning carefully.

It was at all times clear that, from the point of view of the idea it conveys to us, every motion must be considered only as a relative motion. Returning to the illustration we have frequently used of the embankment and the railway carriage, we can express the fact of the motion here taking place in the following two forms, both of which are equally justifiable :
(a) The carriage is in motion relative to the embankment,
(b) The embankment is in motion relative to the carriage.

In (a) the embankment, in (b) the carriage, serves as the body of reference in our statement of the motion taking place. If it is simply a question of detecting or of describing the motion involved, it is in principle immaterial to what reference-body we refer the motion. As already mentioned, this is self-evident, but it must not be confused with the much more comprehensive statement called "the principle of relativity," which we have taken as the basis of our investigations.
The principle we have made use of not only maintains that we may equally well choose the carriage or the embankment as our reference-body for the description of any event (for this, too, is self-evident). Our principle rather asserts what follows : If we formulate the general laws of nature as they are obtained from experience, by making use of
(a) the embankment as reference-body,
(b) the railway carriage as reference-body,

then these general laws of nature (e.g. the laws of mechanics or the law of the propagation of light in vacuo) have exactly the same form in both cases. Albert Einstein, Relativity: the Special and General Theory, public domain, from the chapter entitled "Special and General Theory of Relativity." The theory of special relativity was actually introduced in an article, one of those published in Einstein's breakout year, 1905, not in this book.

So what was this mysterious thing you said?

Heisenberg There's no mystery about it. There never was any mystery. I remember it absolutely clearly, because my life was at stake, and I chose my words very carefully. I simply asked you if as a physicist one had the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy. . . . (p. 36) Michael Frayn, Copenhagen. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Copyright by Michael Frayn, 1998) This excerpt was written about two scientists, not by them. For more on this play, see here. Scientists have occasionally been very concerned about the social impact of their work. They haven't always been concerned enough.

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D. N. A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. . . . It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" Nature 171:737-738, 1953. The first sentence is the opening sentence of this paper. The second sentence I have quoted comes near the end of this two-page article, and it indicates that Watson and Crick knew that this was a highly significant result. Crick is now dead. Watson isn't (yet).

Watson and Crick might not have published this paper without the work of Rosalind Franklin. I am sorry to say that none of the quotes above are from a woman, except the fictional one from Margrethe Bohr, who was not a scientist. There have been, unfortunately, until my own lifetime, few women who achieved prominence in science. I have previously posted about a female scientist who didn't achieve prominence, but did some very significant work.

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