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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Curtiosity about scientific laws

Dick the Butcher:  The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
— William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), Henry the Sixth, Part 2, IV, ii, 64

The very concept of 'laws of nature' is, in contemporary usage, both a product and an expression of the absence of reflectivity.  It introduces into the study of nature a metaphor indelibly marked by its political origins.
— Evelyn Fox Keller (1936 - ), Reflections on Gender and Science, Yale University Press, 1985, 131.

Volumi eguali di gas nelle stesse condizioni di temperatura e di pressione contengono lo stesso numero di molecole.  (Equal volumes of gas under the same conditions of temperature and pressure contain the same number of molecules.)
— Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Avogadro (1776 - 1856), a lawyer, proposes 'Avogadro's Hypothesis', now called 'Avogadro's Law'.

The important point is not the bigness of Avogadro's number, but the bigness of Avogadro.
— Henry Albert Bent (1926 -  ), The Second Law, OUP, 1965.

God did not create the planets and the stars with the intention that they should dominate man, but that they, like other creatures, should obey and serve him
— Paracelsus, Concerning the Nature of Things, c. 1541

The pious Jew or Moslem abhors pork without being conscious that it was awareness of the danger of trichinosis which probably caused his law-makers to impose the prohibition.
— Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, University paperbacks, 1967, 60.

There are ignorant people who speak flowery words and take delight in the letter of the law, saying that there is nothing else.
Bhagavad Gita, 2:42, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

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.
— Max Planck (1858 - 1947), quoted in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 151.

Scientific law is of a totally different nature from civil law; it does not involve an intelligent lawgiver, a command, and a corresponding duty.  It is a brief description in mental shorthand of as wide a range as possible of the sequences of our sense-impressions.
— Karl Pearson (1857 - 1936), The Grammar of Science, Everyman edition, p. 98.

The judge then went on to speak of self-paste learning, and it was then that we realised that the worthy jurist, for all his worthiness, did not have a glue.
— Duncan Bain (1944 - ) 'First let's kill all the lawyers', in A Manual Cant, Breek-Anathema Press, 1988.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Curtiosity about fossils

Be kind to colleagues, ruthless with theories is a good rule.  A scientific theory isn't merely idle speculation, it's a verbal picture of how things might work, how a system in nature might organise things — atoms and molecules, species and ecosystems.  But old palaeontological theories too often aren't treated roughly enough.  Old theories — like the reptilian nature of dinosaurs — are accepted like old friends of the family.
— Robert Bakker, The Dinosaur Heresies, Penguin Books, 1986, 27.

The violence of the weather lately washed down . . . and exposed a mass, which, on digging out, proved to be the vertebrae of some animal, whose size must have been enormous.  It is in excellent preservation, every process and part being perfect. . . .  Many are the conjectures with respect to the animal; some imagine it to be the gigantic buffalo or the rhinoceros, and others the elephant.  That intelligent osteologist, Miss Anning, of Lyme, surmises it to belong to either the behemoth or the hippopotamus, yet admits that it far exceeds their acknowledged dimensions.
The Gentleman's Magazine, December 1824, p. 548.

As compared with their present-day representatives, the Tertiary vertebrates were characterised by their larger size; not that small species did not exist, but that many which then lived were larger than any existing today.
— C. A. Sussmilch, An Introduction to the Geology of New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1922, page 205.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that.
Holy Bible, Genesis, 6:4.

In all museums throughout the world one may see plaster casts of footprints preserved for posterity, not because the animals were particularly good of their sort, but because they had the luck to walk on the lava while it was cooling.  There is just the faint hope that something similar may happen to us.
— A. B. ('Banjo') Paterson, (  - 1941), speaking of himself and Henry Lawson, quoted Time April 26, 1993, 44.
Every organism forms a whole . . . if, for instance, the intestines of an animal are so organised as only to digest fresh meat, it follows that its jaws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its locomotory organs such as to pursue and catch it; its sensory organs to perceive it at a distance . . .
— Baron Cuvier, (1769-1832)

. . . implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, London, 1852, page 1.

Limulus, the king crab of the sea-shore, is still identical with its ancestor found in the fossils of the Secondary geological era: during all this time the program has not varied, each generation punctually fulfilling its task of exactly reproducing the program for the following generation.
— Francois Jacob, The Logic of Life (1973), p. 5.

Our young Geologist, who found
A fake fossil slab, made in Morocco.
These monstrous Bones deep underground
And sent his parcel, not a light one,
To his enlightened friend at Brighton;
Imagined, perhaps, like those who send
The marbles of almighty Greece
Here, to some Antiquarian friend,
They'd make a famous Mantel-piece.
— Anonymous verse (19th century), celebrating the purchase by Gideon Mantell, of an iguanodon found in a quarry at Maidstone.

'Cheer up,' he said, and then he winked.
'It's rather fun to be extinct!'
Ogden Nash (1902 - 1971), 'Fossils' in Carnival of the Animals

See Simulating a fossil
David Davies, a Welsh mine foreman, was the first to make really large collections of plant material from different coal seams.  He showed that even when the plants did not differ very much, there were differences in the proportions of different kinds, just as in one meadow you will find a great deal of clover among the grass, in another very little.
J.B.S.Haldane (1892-1964) Everything Has a History, Allen and Unwin 1951, page 50.

The origins of coal
'It is nothing else,' said the engineer; 'it is light bottled up in the earth for tens of thousands of years — light, absorbed by plants and vegetables, being necessary for the condensation of carbon during the process of their growth, if it be not carbon in another form — and now, after being buried in the earth for long ages in the fields of coal, that latent light is again brought forth and liberated, made to work as in that locomotive, for great human purposes.'
— Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson, quoted in Charles Mackay (ed.), A Thousand and One Gems of English Prose (n.d.), p. 240.

In inland districts, on mountain peaks and in places farthest from the sea, shells, skeletons of sea-fish and marine plants are found, which are just the same as the shells, fish and plants now living in the sea, which are, indeed, exactly the same.

— Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Every organism forms a whole . . . if, for instance, the intestines of an animal are so organised as only to digest fresh meat, it follows that its jaws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its locomotory organs such as to pursue and catch it; its sensory organs to perceive it at a distance

Baron Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier (1769 - 1832)

We have a lamentable instance of the gross impositions practized on the ignorant in former times, at two of their establishments on this coast - Whitby and Lindisfarn, where, to make it appear to the vulgar that their titular saints possessed the power of working miracles; St Hilda is said to have decapitated the snakes and converted them into stones of that form (now the Ammonites of the Lias); and St Cuthbert of Holy Island, is said, with his little hammer, to have forged the introchi (of the Mountain Limestone) - so called St Cuthbert's Beads.

What a gross perversion of Nature.

— William Smith (1769 - 1839)

The violence of the weather lately washed down . . . and exposed a mass, which, on digging out, proved to be the vertebrae of some animal, whose size must have been enormous. It is in excellent preservation, every process and part being perfect. . . . Many are the conjectures with respect to the animal; some imagine it to be the gigantic buffalo or the rhinoceros, and others the elephant. That intelligent osteologist, Miss Anning, of Lyme, surmises it to belong to either the behemoth or the hippopotamus, yet admits that it far exceeds their acknowledged dimensions.

The Gentleman's Magazine

. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.

Lady Harriet Silvester, in her diary, 1824, after visiting Mary Anning.

She sells sea shells
By the sea shore,
And the shells that she sells
Are sea shells, I'm sure.

Verse about Mary Anning

We are lucky to have fossils at all. It is a remarkably fortunate fact of geology that bones, shells and other hard parts of animals, before they decay, can occasionally leave an imprint which later acts as a mould, which shapes hardening rock into a permanent memory of the animal. We don't know what proportion of animals are fossilized after their death - I personally would consider it a very great honour to be fossilized - but it is certainly very small indeed. . .  If a single well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million years-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed. Incidentally, this is sufficient answer to the canard, put about by creationists and their journalistic fellow travellers, that the whole theory of evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology. Ironically, it is also why creationists are so keen on the fake human footprints, which were carved during the depression to fool tourists, in the dinosaur beds of Texas.

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Moral Tale

Two things matter here.  We have been having new carpet laid at home, and I used to be regarded as a heavyweight on educational measurement at a time when the Hierarchy needed educating (nothing has changed).  Anyhow, a colleague named Glen Coulton used to tell Snake Gully stories, and I elected, on occasion, to follow suit.

The relevance of the new carpets is that I had to clear a lot of stuff out of the way, and I have been assessing what to keep and what to throw. One of my finds was one of those Snake Gully stories. Called A Moral Tale, it was a hand-out that I sent around in the October 1979.

This story would never have seen the light of day once more if I had not been somewhat subversive — in the interests of education.I thought it should be brought back to life.  I had, I must confess, quite forgotten it.

Note that it is without a doubt scholarly: it has footnotes, though not the one that I placed in an official Departmental publication, stating that "A pedant is a footnote fetishist".

Anyhow, here it is:

* * * * * *

The staff of Snake Gully High School were disturbed. It was clear to them that the School Report form did not cover all that it should. So they stayed back after school and discussed the issue at length.

To cut an extremely long story somewhat shorter, their main conclusion was that brain and brawn did not always come together. Nor did the one rule out the other. So, since the school's motto was "Growth in Everything" (1), they decided to include a new section on the Report Form. For ease of communication, this was called "Bigness".

At this stage, several groups formed to press for different views on what constituted "bigness".

One group, combining the Science master, a Maths teacher, the History mistress and the French teacher, recalled that the metre was defined from a line from the North Pole to the equator through the Arc de Triomphe. Because of this (and not because their average height was in excess of 190 cm) they proposed that "Bigness“ be defined as:

Height in centimetres

A second group, including two Home Science teachers, a former hydrogeologist, a former "Mermaid" girl, and several teetotallers argued for the pedagogical centrality of water. A kilogram, they said, was the mass of a 10 cm cube of water. Thus, the first definition was subsumed (if not inundated) by their choice of mass as the prime criterion of "bigness". Water was as clean and pure as their motives in putting all of their considerable weight behind the definition of "bigness" as

Mass in kilograms

A third group, known to the rest of the school as "that load of old cobblers“ had a thing about feet. They pointed out that shoe size measurement had an air of Tradition: to an arbitrary length, add the number of barleycorns required to complete the length. (2)

At the mention of barleycorns, this group was joined by several dedicated drinkers, known (for reasons quite unfathomable) as the Last of the Bigfeet. Jointly they pressed their case for "Bigness" to be defined as

Shoe size

The Principal, a person of compromise, decided to use all three measures equally, adding them together. Being a former Maths teacher, he chose to standardise the scores, producing Z-scores.

"Justice", he said (deftly coining a cliché) "must not only be done, it must be seen to be done". (3)

And so it came to pass that the School Reports went forth, and the carbon copies descended unto the lowest drawer of the filing cabinet.

* * * * * *

Early in the following year, a new sports coordinator was appointed. He found a need to select boys' teams for basketball, tug-of-war, and barefoot water skiing.

As it happened it was still vacation time, and so he was unable to try the students out for these teams. Since the teams were to go on an inter-school visit at the very start of term, he had no choice but to use the only available resource : the index of "bigness" in the school records.

As a result, the school basketball team was made up of people who looked like the fellow on the left. The tug-of-war team all looked like the chap in the middle, and the barefoot water skiers all looked like the lad on the right.

 Moral: profile reports sometimes avoid losing valuable detail which is not indicated in a global index.

(1) Except on the signboard at the front of the school where a disgruntled art teacher had modified it "Growth on Everything".

(2) Lyle V. Jones, "The Nature of Measurement" in Robert L. Thorndike (Ed.) Educational Measurement, 2nd edition, Washington: American Council on Education, 1971, p. 339.

(3) As neither he nor his staff had heard of John Marshall, McCulloch or Maryland, this is a true statement.

I can't be sure, but I think Ian Munro did the drawings for me.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Curtiosity about scientific discovery

Have you listened with attention?  Are you now free from your doubts and confusion?
Bhagavad Gita, 18:72, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

In the very beginnings of science,
The parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel,
Made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length
Some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods
By the atoms, which last to this hour.
— James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879)  (Said to be notes on the address of a president of the British Association to its members.

. . . it were good to divide natural philosophy into the mine and the furnace, and to make two professions or occupations of natural philosophers, some to be pioneers and some smiths; some to dig, and some to refine and hammer.
— Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626), Of the Advancement of Learning (1605), Oxford University Press World's Classics, 1969, p. 106.

I would propose that the chemists (or ex-chemists like myself) of my generation when they are introduced to each other should each show the palm of the right hand: towards the centre, where the tendon that flexes the middle finger crosses what palm readers call the life line, the majority of them have a small professional, highly specific scar whose origin I will explain. . . .Plugs of cork or rubber were used for retention; when (a frequent thing, in order, for example, to connect the flask to a cooler) you had to slip a piece of glass bent at a straight angle into a pierced plug, hold it and turn it while pushing, the glass often broke, and the sharp stump plunged into your hand.
— Primo Levi, 'The Mark of the Chemist' in Other People's Trades, page 86.

Nobody will object to an ardent experimentalist boasting of his measurements and rather looking down on the 'paper and ink' physics of his theoretical friend, who on his part is proud of his lofty ideas and despises the dirty fingers of the other.
— Max Born (1882 - 1970), Experiment and Theory in Physics, 1943.

We've got no money, so we've got to think.
— Lord Rutherford, quoted by Sir Edward Appleton, 1956 Reith lectures.

. . . in a few years, all great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will be left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals.
— James Clerk Maxwell (1813 - 1879), Scientific papers, 1871, (Maxwell was describing this view in preparation to attacking it).

It is the greatest discovery in method which science has made that the apparently trivial, the merely curious, may be clues to an understanding of the deepest principles of nature.
  Sir George Paget Thomson (1892- ????)

It follows, though the point will require extended discussion, that a discovery like that of oxygen or X-rays does not simply add one more item to the population of the scientist's world.  Ultimately it has that effect, but not until the professional community has re-evaluated traditional experimental procedures, altered its conception of entities with which it has long been familiar, and, in the process, shifted the network of theory through which it deals with the world.
— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 7.

It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment.  A. N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery.  Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object.  In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Sphere Books, 1967, 73.

The creative impulse seems not to wish to produce finished work.  It certainly deserts us half-way after the idea is born; and if we go on, creation is work.
— Clarence Day (no other details, sorry)

Yet out of pumps grew the discussions about Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum, and then it was discovered that Nature does not abhor a vacuum, but that air has weight; and that notion paved the way for the doctrine that all matter has weight, and that the force which produces weight is co-extensive with the universe — in short, to the theory of universal gravitation and endless force.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895), On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge, 1866.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The first Sydney Harbour tunnel

Crooked Mick decided one year the drought had gone on just a bit too long.  It really was a bad dry spell, even for the Speewah.  First, the trees had started following Mick's dog around, and then even the mirages had dried up, so Mick headed down to Sydney to see what work he could pick up, and Flash Jack and Lazy Harry came with him.  Times were tough everywhere, and they talked on the way about what they would do.

Lazy Harry reckoned he'd heard there was money to be got from holding up a bank, but then Mick pointed out that most of them weren't falling over, so Harry had to think again.  In the end, Harry and Flash Jack opened up their own outdoors barber service, down at Circular Quay.  All they needed was a box for the customers to sit on and their shears, they reckoned.

The trouble was that even city slickers knew a bit about shearing, and they smelled a rat when they saw the tar pot behind the box, ready to be used on any cuts and nicks.  Then again, anybody who saw how they grabbed their customers and held them would be unlikely to line up for a trim, and the word soon spread — "The Mad Barbers" one newspaper called them.  Well the upshot was their business was poor, and they ended up going back to the Speewah, leaving Mick behind in the Big Smoke.

Mind you, I think what really got them going was when this rough bloke from the Rocks came down and said he wanted a good shave and fast.  Looking carefully at the tar-pot, he produced a large pistol, and sat with it in his lap as they put the drop sheet around him, a habit they picked up after the first week, though it didn't work on the sheep at all, the next year when they went back shearing.  Anyhow, this rough bloke settles himself in then gives Flash Jack the eye.

"If you blokes so much as nick me," he says, "I'll shoot you both dead."

"I'm sorry sir," says Flash Jack.  "We don't need your business."

"You do if you don't want to start leaking from holes in your chest," the rough bloke growls, and that makes it final.

Well Flash Jack got the shakes, but Lazy Harry steps in, strops the old cut-throat razor to perfection, lathers him up, shaves him down without so much as a nick.  Standing up and paying, the rough bloke says "That got you going didn't it?  Reckoned your last hour'd come, eh?"

Lazy Harry wipes the razor clean on an old towel.  "No," he says.  "If I'd nicked you, I would have slashed your throat on the next stroke," calm as you like.  But that afternoon, the two of them cleared off for the bush before any more rough blokes could come out of the Rocks for a shave, leaving Mick in the city, all by himself.

Anyhow, there was an election coming on, and the government decided to promise a tunnel under the harbour.  They even went through the act of calling for tenders.  All the big companies were in on the joke, and turned in the quotes their mates the politicians wanted.  They were in a no-lose position, because they all asked for squillions to do the job.  This saved their mates the politicians from having to really build a tunnel, but if something went wrong and somebody got given a contract, they'd make squillions and squillions, because there was this double entry system of accounting that they all used.

Well Mick didn't wake up to what was going on, so he made a serious attempt at quoting on the job.  He walked down to Circular Quay, checked that both sides of the harbour were level, which isn't really all that silly when you consider how little else in a big city is on the level.  Anyhow, he checked the site, picked up a bit of sandstone to see what it weighed, estimated the distance with his trained bushman's eye, and went off to price tools in a hardware shop.

He reckoned he needed four crowbars, four picks, four shovels, four wheelbarrows, two sweat rags (seeing it was only a small job), and a few other odds and ends.  All up, buying only the best, he reckoned that he could get all the gear for fifteen hundred, he estimated the other costs, mainly food and drink, at three and a half thousand, and he allowed himself six thousand or so, and in the end he offered to do the whole job for eleven thousand.

Well when the politicians saw this quote from Mick, they were amazed, especially as the cheapest prices from the big firms were all for squillions and squillions.  They had a quick chat round the back of Parliament House, and said to each other that if this bloke's on the level (and that was unlikely in a big city like Sydney, they all agreed) but if he's really on the level, they said, well maybe we oughta get the job done.

Then one of the wiser ones suggested that maybe this is a put-up job by the other side, the Opposition, something to do with the election that's coming, and so they called Mick in to look him over and question him extra carefully.

"Look here, Mick," said one of them, "why do you need four of all these tools?  Are you only using four people on the job?"

"No," says Crooked Mick, "I'm doing it all meself."

"Then why do you need four of everything?"

Mick said patiently, like he's talking to a baby, "Because I always use one in each hand."

Well they looked him up and down, and then one of them made the point that while he was quite big, they can't see that he's got any more than the standard issue of everything, including hands.

"Look," says Mick, "I'm going to dig from the north side in the morning, then in the afternoon, I'll get a ferry to town, eat me lunch on the way over, and dig from the south side.  I plan to meet up in the middle on the nineteenth day.  I thought them ferry boat people might get upset if I took me tools across, so I thought I'd have two sets.  Anyhow, the break'll give me tools time to cool down."

This was probably the longest speech Mick ever made, but the politicians weren't impressed.  You see, those blokes'd mag the tail off a Speewah scrub bull before breakfast, and they thought Mick was real taciturn, which made him a threat in their eyes.

Their chief worrier came back with another question.  "What happens if you don't meet up in the middle?" he asks.

"Then you'll get two tunnels for the price of one," says Mick, calm as you like.

Anyhow they had the election the next week, and the other mob got in, and changed everything, which included cancelling the plans for the tunnel.  Still, when the drought broke two days later, Mick upped hooks and went back to the Speewah, and gave the contracting game the miss.  At least when you're shearing, he said, the sheep don't ask stupid questions.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Curtiosity about astronomy

Reminder: I am mining my old epigraphs file. This is a miscellany. Do with it what you will — so long as it isn't commercial.

If anything as whacky as this has planets going round it, then surely ordinary stars stand a much better chance these days.
— Heather Couper, British astronomer, 1991, on a pulsar with possible planets (New Scientist??)

We are no other than a magic row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
  Round with the Sun-illumin'd Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show . . .
— Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

It is possible to see that the sun, moon and stars do not rise and set at the same time for every observer, but always rise earlier in the east and later in the west. Eclipses, especially those of the moon, are not always recorded at the same time after noon, being at a later hour in the east than in the west. And as this difference in times is proportional to the distances between places, we can see that the surface of the earth is spherical.
— Claudius Ptolemy (?75 - 150?? AD), Almagest, written about 150 A.D.

The brightness of the sun, which lights up the world, the brightness of the moon and of fire — these are my glory.
Bhagavad Gita, 15:12, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

Howbeit, we cannot choose but confess, that the true reason and knowledge of agriculture, dependeth principally upon the observation of the order in heavenly bodies
— Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79), The Natural History, translated by Philemon Holland (1552 - 1637)

Observatory, altar, temple, tomb,
Erected none knows when by none knows whom,
To serve strange gods or watch familiar stars,
We drive to see you in our motor-cars
And carry picture postcards back to town
While still the unsleeping stars look coldly down.
— Sir John Squire (1884 - 1958), 'Stonehenge', Collected Poems, Macmillan, 1959, p. 209.

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere.
— William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1, V, iv, 65

who knows if the moon's
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky - filled with pretty people?
— e. e. cummings (1894-1962

Fool:  The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear:  Because they are not eight?
Fool:  Yes, indeed; thou wouldst make a good fool.
— William Shakespeare, King Lear, I, v.

Yet we have but to make a few lines on a chart
And the distance of the furthest stars
In the sky can be measured.
— The Sixth Dalai Lama, (1682 - 1705).

When fishes flew and forests walked
 And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
 Then surely I was born;
— G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936), The Donkey

The Milky Way, our galaxy (a word derived from the Greek gala, meaning milk), has great depth. Its distances are most conveniently measured in terms of travelling times at the speed of light.
— Bart J. Bok, 'The Milky Way', Scientific American Reader (1953), page 13.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius begin by acknowledging his indebtedness to his grandfather, father, adopted father, various teachers, and the gods . . . He owes it to the gods . . . that when he took to philosophy he did not waste time on history, syllogism or astronomy.
— Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970) A History of Western Philosophy, chapter XXVIII, p. 271.

Who were they, what lonely men,
Imposed on the fact of night
The fiction of constellations
And made commensurable
The distances between
Themselves, their loves, and their doubt
Of governments and nations?
— Patric Dickinson (1914-  ), 'Jodrell Bank' in The World I See (London 1960

May I not be seen to have lived in vain.
— Tycho Brahe (1546 - 1601), long-time astronomer on the island of Ven. He actually died in Prague.

On the 7th day of January in the present year, 1610, the first hour of the following night, as I was viewing the constellations of the heavens through a telescope, the planet Jupiter presented itself to my view, and . . . I noticed that three little stars, small but very bright, were near the planet, and although I believed them to belong to the number of the fixed stars, yet they made me somewhat wonder, because they seemed to be arranged exactly in a straight line, parallel to the ecliptic, and to be brighter than the rest of the stars.
— Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642), The Sidereal Messenger.

The mathematical professor at Padua hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter, besides many other unknown fixed stars [and] that the moon is not spherical but endowed with many prominences [he shall either be] exceeding famous or exceeding ridiculous.
— Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639), English ambassador to Venice, letter to England, 1610, in Reliquiae Wottoniae, quoted by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man.

They have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies.
— Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745), 'A Voyage to Laputa' in Gulliver's Travels.

Alas . . . Galileo, your devoted friend and servant, has been for a month totally and incurably blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which by my remarkable observations and clear demonstrations I have enlarged a hundred, nay a thousand fold beyond the limits universally accepted by learned men of all previous ages, are now shrivelled up for me into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.
— Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), writing in about 1638.

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

— William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Julius Caesar, II, ii, 30-31

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse,
Without all hope of day!
— John Milton, (1608-1674), Samson Agonistes, l. 80 (Milton visited Galileo after Galileo lost his sight.

Caroline Herschel
in her 98 years to discover
8 comets
she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses
Birr Castle, Ireland
— Adrienne Rich (1929 - ).

CAROLINE, sister of William, was trained by him as a singer in the Bath days and had considerable success in Handel's oratorios under her brother's conductorship. (The method of training adopted was for her to sing the violin parts of concertos with a gag in her mouth.) It was with great reluctance that she dropped music to be trained as an assistant astronomer, yet she made discoveries — eight minor planets, one of them named after her.
— Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, 9th edition, 1955, page 470.

Of Human Bondage
— W. Somerset Maugham, novel title.

Of Herman Bondiage
— Subtitle to Duncan Bain's Herschel Bars and Other Sweet Astronomers, Saccharistella Press, 1985.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Curtiosity about ants and arachnids

Just a further reminder: the curtiosity entries represent selections from a book-sized file of quotes, garnered and stored against some future possible need for epigraphs and epigrams (and, yes, I am old enough to know the difference). They are more than a little random, because that's the nature of scrap books.

One difference from other collections of quotes on the interwebs: these ones are all as fully documented as I can manage.  I hate it when a quote lacks any provenance trail!

Many various kinds of ants inhabit New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land; I know about a dozen species myself. One is a very formidable-looking personage, full an inch long, with a shiny coat of mail gleaming purple and blue, and a threatening sting, which I am told inflicts a most painful wound, as severe as that of the hornet.
— Louise Ann (Mrs Charles) Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales. London: John Murray, 1844, and Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1973, page 69.

Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer.
— Holy Bible, Proverbs 30:25.

Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
— Holy Bible, Proverbs, 6:6.
Moreover, it is commonly said, that a frog hath a double liver, which ought to be laid before ants; and look which of the two lobes or flaps thereof they make unto and seem to gnaw, the same is a most singular antidote against all poisons whatsoever . . .
Pliny, The Natural History, c. 80 AD.

There is no way of keeping ants out of a tent. Those called soldiers or riflemen are the worst. Bushrangers are alleged to have captured a policeman, then bound and thrown him on a soldier-ant nest, where he was stung to death.
C. Rudston Read, What I saw, heard and did at the Australian Gold Fields, 1853, pp 220-221.

Another type of snare is constructed by the 'ant-lion' larvae of certain Myrmeleontidae (Neuroptera). They excavate conical pits in dry, sandy places, by backing into the sand in a circular pattern and flicking off the material that falls on to their head and jaws, so that the sides come to lie at the angle of repose of the sand. Ants or other small insects that tumble into the pitfall are usually seized immediately by the ant-lion, which lies concealed in the sand at the bottom of the pit with its mouth-parts agape. However, if the victim attempts to escape up the sides of the pit, sand is flicked up and either dislodges it or causes the walls of the pit to slip beneath it. Vermilionine Rhagionidae (Diptera) have the same habit in the northern hemisphere, a remarkable example of convergent evolution.
— CSIRO, The Insects of Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1970, p. 129.

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it.
— Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes, 10:8.

You can get to know your own forehead mites the following way: stretch the skin tight with one hand, carefully scrape a spatula or butter knife over the skin in the opposite direction, squeezing out traces of oily material from the sebum glands. (Avoid using too sharp an object, such as a glass edge or sharpened knife.)  Next scrape the extracted material off the spatula with a cover slip and lower the slip face down onto a drop of immersion oil previously placed on a glass slide. Then examine the material with an ordinary compound microscope. You will see the creatures that literally make your skin crawl.
— Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, Belknap 1992, 177.

My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions
— Holy Bible, 1 Kings, 12:11.

Tis true, a scorpions oil is said
To cure the wounds the vermine made;
And weapons, drest with salves, restore
And heal the hurts they gave before;
—Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part III, Canto II 1029–1032. (1662)

Mix equal quantities of oil of scorpions and oil of beeswax, and apply the warm mixture to the kidney.
—Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments: or, a collection of choice and safe remedies, 1696, vol II, p. 111.

…bruised and applied to the Place, they cure the Poison of their own Stings, others take it bruised in Wine, others instil Oil of Scorpions into the Wound. The Oil of Scorpions, is by some recommended as effectual in a Suppression of Urine, the Bladder being anointed with it hot, or before a Fire.
Pharmacopoeia Universalis, or, a New Universal English Dispensatory, 1747, 527–8.

Now for the spotted lizards called stellions, a scorpion stamped is singular good against their poisons . . .
—Pliny, The Natural History, c. 80 AD.

'Will you walk into my parlour?' said a spider to a fly
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.
— Mary Howitt (1799-1888) The Spider and the Fly.

The insect I am now describing lived three years; every year it changed its skin, and got a new set of legs. I have sometimes plucked off a leg, which grew again in two or three days. At first it dreaded my approach to its web; but at last it became so familiar as to take a fly out of my hand, and upon my touching any part of the web, would immediately leave its hole, prepared either for defence or an attack.
— Oliver Goldsmith (1728 - 1774), 'The Philosopher and the Spider', in Animated Nature.

Amazonian tarantula, met a few months ago.
It is proven today that the tarantula is innocuous, as are almost all spiders in our country; but there is not a child, especially in the country, whose mother does not say: 'Don't touch it, it's a spider, it's poisonous'; and childhood memories are indelible.
— Primo Levi, 'The Fear of Spiders' in Other People's Trades, page 144.

Many people, children and adults, men and women, brave and fearful, are deeply repelled by spiders, and if they are asked why spiders in particular, they usually answer: 'Because they have eight legs.'
— Primo Levi, 'The Fear of Spiders' in Other People's Trades, page 141.

So why aren't people as frightened of two red setters, which have more fangs and longer and hairier legs, which can run faster, jump higher, and can surround you?
— Duncan Bain (pseud.) (1944 - ) 'Wring the toxin', from Carl Orff the Dogs, Anura Books, 1985.

Long before the Great Age of Dinosaurs, creatures of humbler build called arthropods began to leave the sea and adopt a life on the land. Not only were arthropods, which include all those animals with an external skeleton and joint ed limbs such as insects, ticks, scorpions and centipedes, the first animals to colonize the land but according to many zoologists they will also be the last survivors.
— Barbara York Main, Spiders, Collins, 1984, 13.

Something completely different: 
How far do ants roam from their nest?
This is lifted from the manuscript of my book Australian Backyard Naturalist, where there is lots more good stuff like this.  I'm not at all sure this made it into the book, but it's hard to get, now, so here it is for free.

About the only way to answer this is to mark some ants and follow them. A quick look at the scientific literature reveals that when scientists mark ants, they use a readily available pen, the 'Artline' 999XF in silver, which has a 0.8 mm "nib", which you can buy at any large stationery shop.

You need to get the pen working first, pressing it down hard on a piece of paper, and then you can mark a dozen ants just by touching each one gently on the abdomen (the tail portion). After that, you need to press the pen hard on paper again.

The ink stays on the ants, and does not seem to harm them. I managed to sight several marked ants on the day after my trial, so it obviously does not make the other ants attack them, something that can happen with some smelly ways of marking ants.

If you are studying ants that are likely to bite or sting, try standing with your feet in two dishes or buckets of water.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Charles Wilkes and the US Exploring Expedition

This one went to air in late 1989, close to the sesquicentenary of Wilkes' arrival in Sydney. Preparing for it involved reading, among other things, the facsimile of Wilkes' rather contentious 500+ page autobiography, never published in print, but reproduced as a facsimile. He was, shall we say, an interesting case.

It was a dark and moonless night, the night of November 29th, 1839, a hundred and fifty years ago last week. The place was the Heads, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, and it was just after sunset. Unseen by the watchers on South Head, who were paid to notice such things, two alien warships slipped quietly into Port Jackson.

It wasn't really all that hard for them to sail in: Macquarie Light shone bravely out on South Head showing the way, and they had sailing directions and an accurate chart of the harbour, prepared by Phillip Parker King, about twenty years earlier.

Since that time, a new light had been placed on the only dangerous reef, the Sow and Pigs, but the chart and sailing directions were otherwise complete and accurate. In any case, there were scattered lights along the southern shore, to guide the ships as they sailed in. It wasn't really a great navigational feat, the way the foreign captain later claimed.

The two ships sailed quietly down the harbour to Sydney Cove and dropped anchor: the United States Exploring Expedition had started to reach Sydney. Next morning, according to the Americans, the whole town was shocked and horrified to discover that two foreign warships could approach in this way, all unseen, mind you, to a position where they might have destroyed Sydney, had they so wished.

So what were they doing here, these Americans? The Exploring Expedition, consisting of the two warships, and two other ships which followed a day or so afterwards, was on the way to explore the Antarctic, to go where no man had gone before, to discover new realms.

I suppose it was pretty inevitable that I'd one day turn to the study of Antarctic exploration. After all, Charles Laseron who wrote South With Mawson used to live in a house that backed on to ours, and my first science teacher, the man we called "Penguin" Watson, was another of those fabulous south-gangers.

And yet it was a completely different line of enquiry that brought me to the United States Exploring Expedition. You see, one of those who visited Sydney with the American fleet was James Dwight Dana, the man who gave us that classic of geology that we still know, even in its most recent editions, as Dana's Mineralogy.

But what was a geologist doing, sailing around the world in a flotilla of US naval craft, I wondered? I mean, sailors usually prefer to steer clear of rocks, don't they? You'd think the pickings for a ship-board geologist would be slim, limited to what you could dredge up from a great depth, or find stuck to the anchor.

Maybe, I thought, it was something to do with his distant relative, Richard Dana, who dropped out of legal studies to travel around Cape Horn, a trip that Richard later celebrated in the famous book Two Years Before the Mast.

But no, geologist James was on the maritime kick first, for he'd been a sea-borne tutor in mathematics to midshipmen in 1833, well before Richard's trip. In those days, midshipmen were sent to sea in training ships, and taught practical skills as they went. So off he sailed, off round the Mediterranean for sixteen months.

James Dana made the trip mainly so he could examine famous geological features in the breaks between his mathematics classes. Then, when that cruise was over, Dana returned to America as a junior assistant in a college, and just a few years after, published his System of Mineralogy at the ripe old age of 24, in 1837. The seventh edition of Dana's Mineralogy, by the way, was completed in 1962, so you can see that the book is something of a perennial.

And that was how the US Navy came to import this bright young man, already blooded in a sixteen-months cruise, when they headed off into the Pacific in 1838. There were going to be lots of rocks to be seen, and I suspect that there might just have been the odd Colonialist glint in the eyes of those who wrote Wilkes' orders in Washington.

The US authorities even admitted to grubby commercial considerations as the prime concern of the expedition, and if the Americans did have any colonial ambitions, it would be handy to have somebody along who could recognise valuable minerals when they turned up.

At that time, whale fishing alone accounted for ten per cent of all US ships on the seas, and the annual loss of ships on uncharted reefs and islands was about as much as the total anticipated cost of the expedition. But if that was all they had in mind, just the charting of new reefs and islands, there was no need of a geologist: a navigator was what they really wanted.

Charles Wilkes
And so we come to Wilkes, an expert navigator. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, as he was then, though he was a Rear-Admiral before he died, and rather lucky as well.

Incredibly lucky, in fact. Exploring Polar seas is best done by experienced people in strong vessels: Charles Wilkes went into the howling Antarctic gales, totally inexperienced, in four veritable cockle-shells, and yet he came out with all his ships intact. The crew were scurvy-ridden, but he brought them back.

Then again, being court-martialled and found guilty is usually enough to ruin any naval officer's career. Wilkes was court-martialled twice, and found guilty twice, the second time for almost provoking war with England, and yet he still ended up Rear Admiral.

When I learned this, I decided that maybe Wilkes was an interesting character who ought to be further investigated. Well after all, he left his name on the Antarctic continent, in Wilkes' Land, didn't he? In the end, I was right and I was wrong.

A specialist in charts and navigation, Wilkes had sailed to England in 1836 to purchase books and instruments for the expedition. While there, he met with James Clark Ross, soon to command a British expedition to find the South Magnetic Pole, and their paths were to cross again, rather disastrously for Wilkes, in southern waters.

But back to Wilkes. After fitting out, he led his motley flotilla of six ships out to sea in August 1838. The largest was a 780 ton sloop, Vincennes, and the rest were all even smaller, down to a couple of hundred-ton tenders, Flying Fish and Sea Gull. By the time they reached Sydney in 1839, a stores ship had been sent back to America, and Sea Gull had been lost with all hands, so the fleetlet was down to four ships when they arrived in Sydney.

Many writers have been critical of the structural weakness and small size of Wilkes' ships, given that they were to sail in Antarctic waters. As a matter of fact, the people of Sydney were unimpressed by the fleet as suitable vessels for tackling the icy wastes, but this was only one of the Americans' aims, just a small part a four-year cruise around the Pacific, and around the world.

A little pilot boat like Flying Fish was ideal for surveying and charting in close to coral reefs. Yet while they were suited to exploring the ice-free waters further north, the vessels lacked sufficient strengthening, and they were poorly insulated.

In fairness, we should note that Wilkes had tried reinforced ships: in his autobiography, he records that the ships handled appallingly. On top of that, they couldn't carry enough gear, and so Wilkes was forced to accept something rather second-best, a compromise.

From a scientific view-point, his trip to the ice was most disappointing. All of the scientists were left behind in Sydney, ostensibly because they would be "worse than a useless appendage".

There may have been more than this, for whatever was found on the trip was to be kept a secret by the US government, and the scientists would have this urge to publish, wouldn't they? And what did the US government hope to find? Why, Symmes' Hole, of course! At least, I think that's what they were after. They denied it so often, they must have been looking for Symmes' Hole.

Symmes was an American military gentleman, who had a novel idea about the world's structure. It was hollow, he said. Those Magellanic clouds in the southern sky weren't really collections of stellar matter, way out in space: they were reflections of other worlds, inside the earth, accessible only by holes that opened out near the poles.

Symmes almost got congressional support to mount an expedition to find these holes in the 1820s, and the idea was still about in the late 1830s, though nobody of any sense believed the yarn. But if there was any hope in anybody's mind about finding Symmes' Hole in the Antarctic, it would make good sense to keep the whole business secret from the scientists, just in case you failed. Still, whatever the reason, Dana and the other scientists were all left behind in Sydney.

This enforced stay in Sydney gave Dana time to contemplate, to think things over. He'd already been studying coral islands, and had some glimmerings of an idea as to how they were formed.

While he was in Sydney, Dana read a short newspaper account of Charles Darwin's ideas: these were in accord with Dana's own ideas, and he was spurred on to gather even more information to support their joint theory.

Meanwhile, some distance to the south, Wilkes had found no holes leading into the interior, and no land either, apart from Adelie Land, discovered by Dumont D'urville, just seven days earlier.

At anchor in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, Wilkes had dashed off a quick letter and a sketch map for his friend Ross, to save Ross time in his own search. As it happened, though, Ross was more interested in magnetic variations, and so he sailed over the same area. And where Wilkes recorded land at 65o40' South, 165o East, Ross could find no bottom with a six-hundred-fathom line. Wilkes' alleged coast-line was at least a kilometre under water!

Wilkes had been wrong. Either he'd misinterpreted cloud as land, which is easy to do, or he'd made an error in navigation. Whatever the cause, he was wrong. Ross tried to make this error known to Wilkes on the quiet. Sadly, Ross used an intermediary by the name of Aulick, another American naval officer who was in the Pacific, and who claimed to be a friend of Wilkes'. He wasn't.

Aulick took great pleasure in spreading the word far and wide around the Pacific that Wilkes had got it all wrong, that there was no land there at all, that the English had proved this. Aulick's pleasure may have been related to the fact that he had tried to talk Wilkes into giving up the command.

Wilkes lacked experience, he suggested. Quite obviously, Aulick felt that he would have been better choice, and Wilkes did not endear himself to the older man when he clicked his fingers under Aulick's nose before walking off. And so Aulick took his gleeful revenge on Wilkes.

This meant that Wilkes was not only denied his discovery of new land, he was made to look universally foolish, both in the Pacific, and back in America.

Ah, you may say though, what about Wilkes Land in Antarctica? He must have discovered that, surely? Well, I'll let Sir Douglas Mawson answer that question for us. After all, it was Sir Douglas who discovered what we now call Wilkes' Land.
To this country, which had never before been seen, was given the name of Wilkes's Land, to commemorate that great American Exploring Expedition.
Though Wilkes fixed such names as Knox Land, North's High Land etc., to coasts reported to have been seen by him, it has been left for us to commemorate his own name in like manner by attaching it to this new stretch of coast.

So in the end, what did Wilkes achieve? Well, the expedition collected much useful information, and many useful plants, all round the Pacific, ranging from close to Antarctica, all the way up to Japan, and he circumnavigated the world.

James Dana gained the time to mature his scientific thinking, and Dana, Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray all worked on the expedition's collections, describing and detailing them, and the abridged version of the report became a minor classic of the 19th century. Wilkes has also given rise to a rather interesting display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

But Wilkes didn't find Symmes' Hole, he didn't discover new lands in Antarctic waters, and I don't think he really frightened the burghers of Sydney by rudely landing, unannounced, in their midst.

You see, I've read the local papers for the whole of the period of his visit, and hardly a reference to the expedition could I find, and certainly no breath of scandal about enemy warships sneaking in.

I suspect that tale was all the fabrication of a cranky old man, rather careless of the truth at the best of times, scrawling out his autobiography in his declining days. One thing is sure: Wilkes says he sailed ten miles up the harbour to anchor at Sydney Cove, and that's impossible.

Or at least I think it is. I live in Manly, and I'm currently checking the records to see if any strange keel marks were found, running down the Corso, late in 1839. For unless he sailed over dry land, there can be no way that he travelled ten miles down the harbour to Sydney Cove.

But it was a dark and moonless night: my colleague Nick Lomb at Sydney Observatory checked it for me in his tables -- they're rather good at that up at the Observatory -- and the moon rose rather late, around midnight. So that part of the story is indeed confirmed as true, unless of course Wilkes sailed in later than he told us: after all, nobody actually saw him, did they?

And something that Wilkes doesn't tell us, and maybe didn't even know himself, is equally true: Wilkes seems to have been, at least in part, the model on whom Herman Melville based his character, Captain Ahab. You know, Captain Ahab as in Moby Dick. And that's got to be better than frightening a few burghers of Sydney, surely?

Post scriptum: Some two months after this went to air, I read Anthony Trollope's account of his travels in Australia, (and in passing of the huge fortifications around Sydney Harbour). Trollope makes it very clear that the major worry for Sydney-siders around 1871 was the Americans. Look, the folk of Sydney said, at the Alabama case and the Trent case. The Trent case was the incident which led to Wilkes' second court-martial. So maybe Wilkes was telling the truth after all!