February 15 is Shoulders of Giants Day (‘Beware the Ides of February?’)

February 14, 2020

February 15th is Shoulders of Giants Day (unless you’re still on the Julian calendar).

Or should be. 

Famous quotations often get cited to the wrong famous person. ‘Somebody said something about standing on the shoulders of giants — who was it? Edison? Lincoln? Einstein? Jefferson?’  It may be possible someday to use Google or a similar service to track down the misquotes.

The inspiration, perhaps

Robert Burton, author of "Anatomy of Melancholy"

Robert Burton, melancholy scholar at Oxford

A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.

Robert Burton (February 8, 1577-January 25, 1640), vicar of Oxford University, who wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy to ward off his own depressions

The famous quote

Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir Godfrey Keller, 1689

Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir Godfrey Keller, 1689

If I have seen further (than you and Descartes) it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Sir Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675, Julian/February 15, 1676, Gregorian

Newton consciously paid tribute to others who had plowed his science fields before, even if he came up with different crops, er, answers. All science is based on something that comes before it, and in the modern world science advances, oddly, by trying to disprove what scientists thought happened before.

But the sentiment applies equally well in business, in politics, in raising children. We are products of what we learn, and what we learn is a result of culture, which is a result of history. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

It’s our job to try to see farther, and not just look down, at how far up we are.

Someone will ask (since we so often discuss it), ‘can we fly our flags today?’

Of course you may fly your U.S. flag today. It’s not a day designated by law, but you may fly it in honor of Sir Isaac Newton’s letter if you wish. The U.S. flag code suggests times Americans may fly their flags, but does not require it, nor does law forbid flying the flag for other occasions, or just for every day.

Maybe better, climb to the top of the flag pole. What can you see, aided by a giant’s height?

Other references:

Inscription on the edge of Britain's 2-pound coin; in this photo, four coins are used, to show the entire inscription. Flickriver image

Inscription on the edge of Britain’s 2-pound coin; in this photo, four coins are used, to show the entire inscription. Flickriver image, 1875Brian

 

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This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

Happy birthday Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln!

February 12, 2020

Is it an unprecedented coincidence?  211 years ago today, just minutes (probably hours) apart according to unconfirmed accounts, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rude log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Kentucky, and Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family at his family’s home  in Shrewsbury, England.

Gutzon Borglum’s 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol – Architect of the Capitol photo

Lincoln would become one of our most endeared presidents, though endearment would come after his assassination.  Lincoln’s bust rides the crest of Mt. Rushmore (next to two slaveholders), with George Washington, the Father of His Country, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt, the man who made the modern presidency, and the only man ever to have won both a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Nobel Prize, the only president to have won the Medal of Honor. 

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London – NHM photo

In his effort to keep the Union together, Lincoln freed the slaves of the states in rebellion during the civil war, becoming an icon to freedom and human rights for all history.  Upon his death the entire nation mourned; his funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, stopped twelve times along the way for full funeral services.  Lying in state in the Illinois House of Representatives, beneath a two-times lifesize portrait of George Washington, a banner proclaimed, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.”

Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He would be credited with discovering the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection.  His meticulous footnoting and careful observations formed the data for ground-breaking papers in geology (the creation of coral atolls), zoology (barnacles, and the expression of emotions in animals and man), botany (climbing vines and insectivorous plants), ecology (worms and leaf mould), and travel (the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle).  At his death he was honored with a state funeral, attended by the great scientists and statesmen of London in his day.  Hymns were specially written for the occasion.  Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton, England’s other great scientist, who knocked God out of the heavens.

Lincoln would be known as the man who saved the Union of the United States and set the standard for civil and human rights, vindicating the religious beliefs of many and challenging the beliefs of many more.  Darwin’s theory would become one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, changing forever all the sciences, and especially agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest of biology, while also provoking crises in religious sects.

Lincoln, the politician known for freeing the slaves, also was the first U.S. president to formally consult with scientists, calling on the National Science Foundation (whose creation he oversaw) to advise his administration.  Darwin, the scientist, advocated that his family put the weight of its fortune behind the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Each held an interest in the other’s disciplines.

Both men were catapulted to fame in 1858. Lincoln’s notoriety came from a series of debates on the nation’s dealing with slavery, in his losing campaign against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.  On the fame of that campaign, he won the nomination to the presidency of the fledgling Republican Party in 1860.  Darwin was spurred to publicly reveal his ideas about the power of natural and sexual selection as the force behind evolution, in a paper co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace, presented to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858.   On the strength of that paper, barely noticed at the time, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.

Darwin and Lincoln might have got along well, but they never met.

What unusual coincidences.

Go celebrate human rights, good science, and the stories about these men.

A school kid could do much worse than to study the history of these two great men.  We study them far too little, it seems to me.

Resources:

Charles Darwin:

Abraham Lincoln:

More:

Anybody know what hour of the day either of these men was born?

Yes, you may fly your flag today for Lincoln’s birthday, according to the Flag Code; the official holiday, Washington’s Birthday, is next Monday, February 15th — and yes, it’s usually called “Presidents Day” by merchants and calendar makers. You want to fly your flag for Charles Darwin? Darwin never set foot in North America, remained a loyal subject of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, to the end of his days. But go ahead. Who would know?

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

“NOAA chief scientist just really going for it”

September 12, 2019

Photo from the window of a NOAA research flight. Masthead for NOAA press releases online.

NOAA’s chief scientist reminds everyone that accuracy with honor is necessary for science to be good.

Here is the entire message from NOAA Assistant Administrator Craig McLean, to NOAA staff, sent out Tuesday, September 10, 2019.

A Message from Craig McLean: Hurricane Dorian and Exceptional Service

This following is the original message Craig McLean, NOAA Research Assistant Administrator, sent to all NOAA Research employees on the morning of Monday, September 9th regarding Hurricane Dorian and its wide-ranging impacts.

Dear Colleagues,

The fierce storm we know as Hurricane Dorian has concluded its ferocious path through the Bahamas and along the U.S. East Coast. Many of you have contributed to the excellent science that has underpinned the forecasts and current understanding of storms such as this one, which accelerated quite rapidly in intensity. The storm also presented challenges in track which improved with enhanced observations. We know that our collective work, from the scientists in the aircraft penetrating the storm, to the scientists deploying the glider picket line, to the modelers and folks working the physics of the storms, across OAR and in our CI’s, and across all NOAA Lines, we are working the problem in order to give the NWS forecasters the best tools we possibly can to keep America and our neighbors safe. Thank you. 

During the course of the storm, as I am sure you are aware, there were routine and exceptional expert forecasts, the best possible, issued by the NWS Forecasters. These are remarkable colleagues of ours, who receive our products, use them well, and provide the benefit of their own experience in announcing accurate forecasts accompanied by the distinction of all credible scientists—they sign their work. As I’m sure you also know, there was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane. The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should. There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from “NOAA” that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political. Our NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy and Code of Scientific Conduct make clear that all NOAA employees shall approach all scientific activities with honesty, objectively, and completely, without allegiance to individuals, organizations, or ideology. The content of this press release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises. 

You know that the value of our science is in the complexity of our understanding, our ability to convey that understanding to a wide audience of users of this information, and to establish and sustain the public trust in the truth and legitimacy of that information. Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA’s policies of scientific integrity. In my role as Assistant Administrator for Research, and as I continue to administratively serve as Acting Chief Scientist, I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity. Thankfully, we have such policies that are independently cited as among the best in the federal community, if not the best. Your NOAA and OAR management and leadership team believes in these policies and principles. I have a responsibility to pursue these truths. I will.

Thank you for your continued excellent work, and your trust. Carry on.

Craig McLean, NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Assistant Administrator
NOAA Assistant Administrator Craig McLean

Craig N. McLean
Assistant Administrator 
Oceanic and Atmospheric Research
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The original Tweet:

twitter.com/katenocera/status/1171540097797251074


Einstein’s birthday is Pi Day; coincidence?

March 14, 2019

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  An encore post.

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day? He’s 140 years old today, and famous around the world for stuff that most people still don’t understand.

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Fittingly, perhaps, March 14 now is celebrated as Pi Day, in honor of that almost magical number, Pi, used to calculate the circumference of a circle. Pi is 3. 1415~, and so the American date 3/14 got tagged as Pi Day.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein.

26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

Einstein as a young man.
Einstein as a younger man, circa 1921. Nobel Committee photo.

In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them all off in just a few months, forever changing the fields of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo-electric effect. Irony in history. Nobel committee members didn’t understand Einstein’s other work much better than the rest of us today.

114 years later, Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t fully understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement.

Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp
Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: HipStamp)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character.

His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that though mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets, in history, diplomacy and science.

Does anyone know? What was Albert Einstein’s favorite pie?

More, and resources:


Dunning Kruger becomes melody, in the “Incompetence Opera”

February 15, 2019

This should be worthy of watching, and of future commentary

"The Incompetence Opera" appears to have been a production of the 2017 IgNobel Prize ceremony in 2017. "‘They don’t know that they don’t know!’ Ray Bauwens sings about the Dunning-Kruger effect at the 2017 Ignobel Prizes ceremony in Harvard 2017 (AIR)"
“The Incompetence Opera” appears to have been a production of the 2017 IgNobel Prize ceremony in 2017. “‘They don’t know that they don’t know!’ Ray Bauwens sings about the Dunning-Kruger effect at the 2017 Ignobel Prizes ceremony in Harvard 2017 (AIR)”

Bookmark this video. Sadly, you’ll have much use for it over the next two years.

Tip of the old scrub brush to The Weekly Sift.

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December 31 is Bright Idea Day 2018, anniversary of the Day the Lights Went On

December 31, 2018

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we celebrate a variety of historically holy days. December 31, by tradition, is Bright Idea Day, the anniversary of the day Thomas Edison demonstrated for the public a working light bulb, in 1879.

100,000 people gather in Times Square, New York City (surely not the 2 million predicted by NBC!) tonight, and millions more around the world, in festivities for the new year made possible by the work of Thomas Alva Edison.

Here it is, the invention that stole sleep from our grasp, made clubbing possible, and launched 50,000 cartoons about ideas:

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey - Wikimedia image

The light bulb Thomas Edison demonstrated on December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park, New Jersey – Wikimedia image (GFDL)

The light bulb. It’s an incandescent bulb.

It wasn’t the first bulb. Edison a few months earlier devised a bulb that worked with a platinum filament. Platinum was too expensive for mass production, though — and Edison wanted mass production. So, with the cadre of great assistants at his Menlo Park laboratories, he struggled to find a good, inexpensive filament that would provide adequate life for the bulb. By late December 1879 they had settled on carbon filament.

Edison invited investors and the public to see the bulb demonstrated, on December 31, 1879.

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison in 1878, the year before he demonstrated a workable electric light bulb. CREDIT: Thomas Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-98067

Edison’s successful bulb indicated changes in science, technology, invention, intellectual property and finance well beyond its use of electricity. For example:

  • Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey, offices and laboratory were financed with earlier successful inventions. It was a hive of inventive activity aimed to make practical inventions from advances in science. Edison was all about selling inventions and rights to manufacture devices. He always had an eye on the profit potential. His improvements on the telegraph would found his laboratory he thought, and he expected to sell the device to Western Union for $5,000 to $7,000. Instead of offering it to them at a price, however, he asked Western Union to bid on it. They bid $10,000, which Edison gratefully accepted, along with the lesson that he might do better letting the marketplace establish the price for his inventions. Other inventive labs followed Edison’s example, such as the famous Bell Labs, but few equalled his success, or had as much fun doing it.  (Economics teachers:  Need an example of the marketplace in action?)
  • While Edison had some financial weight to invest in the quest for a workable electric light, he also got financial support, $30,000 worth, from some of the finance giants of the day, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts who established the Edison Light Company.
  • Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — but his improvements on it made it commercial. “In addressing the question ‘Who invented the incandescent lamp?’ historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance lamp that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”
  • Edison’s financial and business leadership acumen is partly attested to by the continuance of his organizations, today — General Electric, one of the world’s most successful companies over the past 40 years, traces its origins to Edison.

Look around yourself this evening, and you can find a score of ways that Edison’s invention and its descendants affect your life. One of the more amusing effects is in cartooning, however. Today a glowing lightbulb is universally accepted as a nonverbal symbol for ideas and inventions. (See Mark Parisi’s series of lightbulb cartoons, “Off the Mark.”)

Even with modern, electricity-saving bulbs, the cartoon shorthand hangs on, as in this Mitra Farmand cartoon.

Fusilli has an idea, Mitra Farmand, Fuffernutter

Brilliant cartoon from Mitra Farmand, Fluffernutter (regrettably, we note this site is no longer there; but with some hope, we find a new site here)

Or see this wonderful animation, a video advertisement for United Airlines, by Joanna Quinn for Fallon — almost every frame has the symbolic lightbulb in it.

Electrification of America, and the consequent spread of electric lighting and electrical machines to make domestic and industrial life more productive, and the spread of great public works to enable these and other inventions to spread, were made possible by a people roughly united in advancing progress, what historians now call “the progressive agenda” and the great advances of the Progressive Era.

Could we get such agreement among workers, corporate bosses and many levels of government today? When we celebrate anniversaries, like the demonstration of the light bulb, we celebrate the united polity that made such things possible, too.

Gee, I wonder who were the dignitaries to whom Edison demonstrated the electric light on that New Years Eve, in 1879. Anyone know? We can safely wager that there were representatives of the Vanderbilts and Morgans there, families who invested in Edison as an inventor.

Other resources:

Patent drawing for Thomas Edison's successful electric lamp. Library of Congress

Thomas Edison’s electric lamp patent drawing and claim for the incandescent light bulb CREDIT: “New Jersey–The Wizard of Electricity–Thomas A. Edison’s System of Electric Illumination,” 1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-97960.

Even More:

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.


World Malaria Report 2018: Quick blueprint for action, no standing still

December 27, 2018

No standing still with malaria, fighting the disease must continue or progress can be quickly lost. Still from WHO film on World Malaria Report 2018 call to action.

No standing still with malaria, fighting the disease must continue or progress can be quickly lost. Still from WHO film on World Malaria Report 2018 call to action.

World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Malaria Report 2018 dropped on November 19, a month earlier than usual (but about the same time as 2017). With an additional few weeks to plug it, it still sank without big ripples in world media.

WHO adds a shorter version, an “executive version” — that still doesn’t get the attention it should.

This is prelude to a tragedy if industrialized and wealthy nations of the world pay no heed, and continue to cut budgets to fight malaria for whatever bad reason some crabby, brown Earth policy maker invents.

Ever optimistic, WHO gives a plan for action to continue to reduce malaria deaths and infections, even with reduced funding. None of the proposed actions involves more DDT to poison poor people in poor countries, however, so it is unlikely to find favor with the crabby policy people now in charge of fixing world problems in the increasingly isolationist West (including the U.S.).

Please watch the video. What is your country doing to eradicate malaria? How can you prod politicians to do more?
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