Archive for: December, 2009

Lord Kelvin vs. the Aether! (1901)

Dec 29 2009 Published by under History of science, Physics

The more I study the history of aether physics, the more I feel that modern physicists underappreciate both the huge influence the theory had on the development of physics and how it indirectly spurred many positive scientific discoveries, even though it is an incorrect theory. The "aether", for those not familiar with it, was a hypothetical substance theorized in the early 1800s to be the medium in which light waves propagate, just as water waves travel through water and sound waves travel through air.  Many papers were written speculating on the nature of the aether before Einstein's special theory of relativity (1905) argued convincingly that the aether was unnecessary.

Nevertheless, these speculations resulted in a number of interesting results.  For instance, we have noted previously that Earnshaw's theorem (1839), an important result in electromagnetic theory, arose from an attempt to determine the forces that hold the aether together.  In 1902, Lord Rayleigh attempted to detect the aether-induced "length contraction" by measuring the birefringence of moving objects, an ingenious attempt that gave a negative result.

In the broadest sense, a "good" theory is one which raises interesting questions that may inevitably be tested by experiment.  Even if it proves to be fundamentally incorrect in the end, it has spurred numerous theoretical and experimental results.  This can be contrasted with sham "theories" such as intelligent design (the "theory" that living creatures are too complex to have developed without the aid of a creator), which has resulted in no testable predictions and exists only as a way to push religion into the classroom.

By 1900, the aether remained a vexing mystery, and perhaps the foremost scientific problem, for the physicists of the era.  It is not surprising that many famous scientists expended considerable energy to try and elucidate its properties.  In 1901, a paper appeared in the Philosophical Magazine (Ser. 6, vol. 2, 161-177) by the famous (even infamous) Lord Kelvin, entitled, "On Ether and Gravitational Matter through Infinite Space."  It is not, in fact, an original publication; as Kelvin puts it,

This is an amplification of Lecture XVI, Baltimore, Oct. 15, 1884, now being prepared for print in a volume on Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light, which I hope may be published within a year from the present time.

In fact, the article begins with a reprinting of material from 1854, nearly fifty years old!  This is, if nothing else, a measure of how baffling the aether was to physicists of the time -- material fifty years old was still, in some sense, "state of the art".

The 1901 paper, as a whole, summarizes Kelvin's theoretical musings on the nature of the aether, and highlights how perplexing the topic remained before Einstein's wonderful theory came along and shattered the aether hypothesis once and for all.

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Kepler's contributions to optics, at Renaissance Mathematicus

Dec 28 2009 Published by under History of science, Optics

Those who follow this site for optics and history of science posts should take at look at this nice post by The Renaissance Mathematicus.  It covers the contributions of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to the modern theory of optics.  Kepler is most known for his astronomical observations, but optics and astronomy go hand-in-hand, for obvious reasons!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: technology vs. prejudice, the history of grain-eating, and curing PTSD via virtual reality

Dec 28 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Can modern day gadgets help combat prejudice? We have come so far as a society in combating prejudice, but there is clearly much more to be done.  William Lu at The Quantum Lobe Chronicles discusses attempts to use technology to study and reduce such responses.
  • Humans Ate Grains During the Middle Stone Age. Conventional thinking suggests that humans began eating and working with grains some 12,000 years ago.  Rachel at The Sage of Discovery describes fascinating anthropological evidence that this number is too low by nearly a factor of ten!
  • Virtual Reality for Treatment of PTSD. How effective is virtual reality in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder?  Dr. Shock at Dr. Shock MD PhD describes studies evaluating the use of the technique in the field.

See you next Monday!

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A new paper airplane world record!

Dec 28 2009 Published by under Science news, Sports

Via The Huffington Post, I found this story pretty exciting: a Japanese man has made a new world record for the longest duration flight of a paper airplane!

Only one man – Japanese paper airplane virtuoso Takuo Toda – has ever come close to breaking the 30-second barrier. On Sunday, he set a world record for a hand-launched plane made with only paper, but fell just short of the 30-second mark.

Toda, flying a 10-centimeter-long craft of his own design, made 10 attempts to break his own record of 27.9 seconds set earlier this year in Hiroshima but failed to best his previous mark, settling for a 26.1-second flight.

That was still the best ever recorded for a strictly paper-only craft. His 27.9 record was set with a plane that had tape on it.

A lot of engineering can go into paper airplane design, and there are a lot of different styles of airplane with a lot of different flight characteristics.  When I was a kid, I had a number of books with both simple and remarkably complicated designs, many of which I can still put together.  Congratulations to Takuo Toda!

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Merry Christmas

Dec 25 2009 Published by under Personal, Silliness

We arrived in Chicago on the 23rd, just ahead of a nice ice storm.  Things were a bit of a mess afterwards, but very pretty:

Merry Christmas to those celebrating, and happy holidays to everyone else!

As my usual Yuletide tradition, I present MST3k's "A Patrick Swayze Christmas", more poignant than usual due to the recent passing of Swayze:

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M.P. Shiel's Prince Zaleski

Dec 22 2009 Published by under Mystery/thriller

Valancourt Books continues to release fascinating literary treasures that have been buried and forgotten for ages!  The most recent of these is a collection of stories by M.P. Shiel about his character Prince Zaleski:

We've encountered Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) before on this blog, when I discussed his short tales of weird fiction, most recently collected in The House of Sounds and Others.  I found the quality of his writing to be a little uneven, but he does achieve moments of true horror.

Prince Zaleski (1895) represents Shiel's contribution to the mystery genre, and is his answer to Sherlock Holmes.  The 'compilation' is a rather short one -- only consisting of three stories -- but the stories are clever and even wonderfully creepy at times.

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Another kitty anchors herself in our home!

Dec 21 2009 Published by under Animals, Personal

Book writing is coming along, and I actually can see light at the end of the tunnel.  The biggest section left to write is on tensor analysis, and the biggest difficulty is determining how much to include in my book -- tensor analysis isn't that broadly used in optics, and I don't want to take up precious page space on it.  Beyond that, I've got 3 or 4 other small sections to write and/or complete, and they're the fun ones.  With the pressure off me a little bit (and exams graded), I'm planning to write a history of science post later this week.

In the meantime, today we officially declared that we're going to keep Sophie, the hyperactive foster kitty we picked up last month (right now she's sitting in my lap, demanding attention.)  I managed (through pure luck -- my photography skills are lacking) to get a cute pic of her inside the Christmas tree, planning to demolish it:

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: the most distant object seen, a landslide dam, and anonymity on the internet

Dec 21 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Beyond the farthest star. Brian at Upon Reflection talks about the most distant and hence oldest cosmic burst of energy ever recorded -- surprisingly close to the beginning of the universe.
  • Balancing anonymity, privacy, and security. Having my pseudonym is fun and convenient, but how do my needs for privacy balance against the overall security of the internet and society?  David at Sciencetext gives a nice summary of the issues debated.
  • On the perils of Lake Sarez (Usoi) in Tajikistan. It is easy to forget at times the many and unexpected ways natural processes can put people in peril.  Dr. Dave at Dave's Landslide Blog talks about the dangers of a natural dam formed by a century-old landslide -- and the debate about what to do about it.

That's it for this week!  Now, for a quick announcement: it is expected that research blogging will slow down significantly over the holidays, though nobody is sure yet quite how much.  I'm planning to post each Monday anyway, though I may post fewer selections depending on the amount of submissions.

See you next Monday!

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The Giant's Shoulders #18 is up!

Dec 16 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

The eighteenth edition of The Giant's Shoulders is up at Jost a mon!  Many thanks to Fëanor for putting together a really lovely edition!

The deadline for the next edition is January 15th, and it will be held at The Renaissance Mathematicus.  Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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Atlantis discovered... again...sigh.

Dec 16 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

Via the Huffington Post, which is sort of a magnet for really outlandish and unsubstantiated claims, we find this rather dubious announcement that the lost city of Atlantis has been found:

Undersea archaeologists have found the ruins of an ancient city on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, and researchers claim that it is the fabled and lost city of Atlantis. The satellite photos do show something that could be a city, and the researchers believe that what they've found would predate the pyramids of Egypt. Indeed they claim to be able to make out a pyramid and other city-like structures from the satellite photos.

The archaeologists have so far refused to divulge their identities or the location in the Caribbean. They say they are raising money for an expedition to confirm their findings.

This immediately earned me a face palm.  The text as written has all the hallmarks of sloppy, even cranky, research: immediate and unjustified speculation that the structures predate the pyramids, refusal to divulge the identities of the "researchers", coupled with an immediate plea for funds for further exploration.  Couple that with the fact that the speculation is based on satellite photos, and the reality that any sort of remote sensing and mapping can introduce unexpected artifacts (such as the Google Atlantis fiasco, here and here).

I also cringed every time that Dylan Ratigan, the MSNBC host in the Huffpost video, referred to the lost city of Atlantis -- the story of Atlantis was introduced by Plato in his dialogues (as I've blogged about before), and according to Plato it was "an island larger than Libya and Asia combined," in other words a continent.  Even though he knows nothing about the history of Atlantis, at least Ratigan seemed to show a good amount of skepticism at the claims.

Looking at the original Herald de Paris article, though, we find that the Huffpost article is really, really distorting some of the researchers' words:

Asked if this city is the legendary city of Atlantis, the researchers immediately said no.  “The romanticized ideal of Atlantis probably never existed, nor will anyone ever strap on a SCUBA tank, jump in the water, and find a city gateway that says, ‘Welcome to Atlantis.’  However, we do believe that this city may have been one of many cities of an advanced, seafaring, trade-based civilization, which may have been visited by their Eurocentric counterparts.”

How's that for journalism?  Herald de Paris: "Asked if this city is... Atlantis, the researchers immediately said no. "  Huffpost: "researchers claim that it is the fabled and lost city of Atlantis."

Could they have actually found something?  Color me really, really doubtful at the moment.  The researchers have released their unenhanced images, which is to their credit, but what I see looks like a bunch of lines that may very well be an artifact of the imaging process (the Atari 2600 effect: everything looks square), or some sort of natural formation (see the Bimini Road in this post, another candidate for the site of Atlantis).  It is way, way, way premature to be spotting pyramids and other buildings.  Dim satellite images can act as a Rorschach test: people can see in them whatever they want to see.

I'm always open to the possibility of something surprising being discovered, but I suspect we won't hear much more from these researchers, whether or not they do get their funds to explore.

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