Archive for: August, 2010

Tolman goes silly for similitude! (1914)

This post is for the special "fools, failures and frauds" edition of The Giant's Shoulders.

The early 20th century was clearly an exciting time to be a physicist. In 1905, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, radically revising human concepts of space and time. In the same year, and the same issue of the Annalen der Physik, Einstein really sparked the "quantum revolution" with his explanation of the photoelectric effect, an explanation that would scramble existing preconceptions of the nature of light and matter and would eventually shake the deterministic foundations of physical theory.

By the teen years of the 1900s, it must have seemed to many physicists that no idea was too crazy to possibly be true!  Furthermore, the simplicity and elegance of Einstein's relativity must have suggested to scientists that the secrets of the universe remaining to be discovered would be of the same sort of "beautifully obvious" form.

One researcher who was  seduced by this sort of thinking was Richard C. Tolman.  In 1914, he published a paper on a new physical principle that he referred to as "the principle of similitude".  In Tolman's own words, his principle represented a new form of "relativity of size", which "provides a very simple and general method for obtaining conclusions as to the form of functional relations connecting physical magnitudes."

Tolman's theory was bold, it was powerful... and it didn't really work out.  It is a great example of a failed theory, and even more fascinating because its proponent was no crackpot, and its insights turned out to have some practical use in the end.  There's even a whiff of a conspiracy surrounding similitude, which I will describe at the end of the post!

This post is closely related to the idea of dimensions in physics; if you're not familiar with this concept, check my earlier post here.

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The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part II

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of the Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. If this is your first time visiting Skulls in the Stars make sure to browse some of the other posts on the blog. The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I can be found at Cocktail Party Physics. Thanks. - EMJ

How Europe's Most Notorious Anarchist Came to Challenge England's Most Distinguished Man of Science.

Artist depiction of the bombing during an anarchist rally at Haymarket Square,
May 4, 1886 / Harper's Weekly

If you read the English-language press at the time, you would know that Peter Kropotkin was a dangerous man. As a self-proclaimed anarchist he was condemned as "a malignant fungoid growth...on the body politic" and his philosophy was nothing but "another name for organized crime." Kropotkin and his ilk were "a pack of bloodthirsty and ferocious criminals who prey upon their fellows for their own gain," and his published writings were not "a document of contemporary politics," but rather a disturbing "matter for the pathologist of disease." He had already spent years in Russian and French prisons after being convicted for crimes against the State, he had known associations with dangerous radicals and revolutionaries, and he wouldn't be satisfied until anarchy reigned throughout Europe. He was also a Prince, an internationally respected naturalist who wrote regularly for the journal Nature, and was as likely to be found in attendance at a London scientific conference as a clandestine political meeting. [1]

Kropotkin's notoriety as a political radical was equaled only by the high esteem held for his scientific and scholarly achievements. The discoveries he had made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Cambridge University endowed chair in geology (which he turned down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political work). Kropotkin gave lectures on biology and geology throughout Europe, England, and North America and was an outspoken proponent of an ecosystems worldview in which nature was never static but remained constantly in flux. He was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay "Revolutionary Studies":

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species -- Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! ... What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us.

Kropotkin lived in a time when the human environment was indeed undergoing radical change. A previously stable ecosystem had been upended and the scramble for a new niche had already begun in force. Modern economic realities were changing the structure of feudal society and those who had previously been on the edge were now being pushed over it. As was often the case (and largely still is today) the comfortable sought justification for these changes by looking to laws of nature or by excusing them as a manifestation of God's will. But others saw them as a warning. Unless the marginalized and oppressed became organized, they argued, there would never be any justice.

G.D.H. Cole wrote about the growing popular movement during this period in his British Working Class Politics:

Wherever the workers are voteless, or the right of political agitation is not granted to them, working-class political movements are bound, if they exist at all, to take a revolutionary form.

After years of attempting to get their concerns heard in Parliament through The People's Charter, the poor were tired of being told to work within a system that didn't work with them. A laborer in the north of England expressed the sentiment that many felt when he said, "There is not a labouring man here, from 16 to 60, who has not signed the petition, and there is a pike for every signature." But the aristocracy rejected The People's Charter outright. Secretary at War Thomas Babington Macaulay announced before the House of Commons that he believed giving poor people the right to vote would be "fatal to all purposes for which government exists." For members of the landed gentry such as himself and most ministers in Parliament, the very concept was a threat to their high station and was thought to be "incompatible with the very existence of civilization." Voted down by a tally of 235 to 46, the movement that had developed as a political reform now took on a revolutionary direction. The following decades would see an explosion of political activity among the poor as those now familiar concepts -- socialism, communism, and anarchy -- sought to challenge a stagnant and corrupt system. [2]

Coronation of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Three generations would be targeted for assassination by Russian radicals with Alexander II dying in a bomb attack.

However, as a young man in the court of Tsar Alexander II, Peter Kropotkin's idea of rebellion was to follow in the footsteps of Darwin and embark on a five-year expedition of Siberia rather than follow in his family's military legacy. Born into the Russian nobility, Kropotkin grew up in household of just eight family members but attended by no fewer than fifty servants at their Moscow estate. As Kropotkin described in his memoir, these included four coachmen to attend the horses, three cooks, a dozen men to wait upon them at dinner ("one man, plate in hand, standing behind each person seated at the table") and innumerable maidservants to attend them in their chambers. Then, of course, there were the serfs who made the Kropotkin family's wealth possible.

Wealth was measured in those times by the number of "souls" that a landed proprietor owned. So many "souls" meant so many male serfs: women did not count. My father, who owned nearly twelve hundred souls, in three different provinces, and who had, in addition to his peasants' holdings, large tracts of land which were cultivated by these peasants, was accounted a rich man.

However, among the serfs, "human feelings were not recognized, not even suspected," by members of his class. Kropotkin recalled stories of husbands and wives torn from their families because they'd been lost in a hand of cards or to be exchanged for a pair of hunting dogs. Peasant children could be sold on a whim or flogged in the stables "with unheard-of cruelty." As to the poverty, "no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it."

Graduating first in his class in the Corps of Pages, and personal attendant of Tsar Alexander II himself, Kropotkin had his choice of military stations. But it was his desire to escape from courtly life and pursue the calling of a scholar and naturalist that set a course which would later define his life. Kropotkin's writings during his Siberian expeditions evoke a harsh landscape where life was under constant struggle for survival. Terrible snow-storms that would descend without warning, torrential rains from the summer monsoons "resulting in inundations...and swamping, on the plateaus, areas as wide as European States." Kropotkin witnessed entire communities of animals wiped out under these brutal conditions and he came to understand natural selection as fundamentally a struggle against the elements.

Enthusiastic to observe Siberia's animal life through an evolutionary lens, Kropotkin and the respected zoologist I.S. Poliakov looked in vain for the intraspecific competition that Darwin described from his explorations in the tropics. "We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling," Kropotkin recalled, but it was "very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies." What Kropotkin found most often was mutual aid and cooperation between members of a group.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of the century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions "by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!" and "who are the fittest in the struggle!" will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as "metaphorical" - the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

This mutual aid that Kropotkin found amongst Siberia's fauna from beetles and land crabs to birds, deer, and antelope he also witnessed amongst the indigenous peoples he lived with in remote reaches of the empire. These experiences revealed to him "the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization." Having been raised in a society steeped in discipline, hierarchy, and the glories of conflict, Kropotkin's experience in Siberia planted the seed of inspiration. [3]

As Johns Hopkins University historian Daniel P. Todes observed:

Kropotkin's Siberian experience played a similar role in the development of his ideas about evolution and ecology as had Darwin's Beagle voyage in his. Just as Darwin came to doubt the fixity of species, so did Kropotkin, already an evolutionist, become skeptical of the importance of intraspecific competition.

It was also during his expeditions that he discovered the brutality inflicted on Russia's peasants by agents of the Tsarist government. Workers in the Lena gold mines were slaves in all but name, he witnessed district police who "robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left," and a culture of impunity that allowed officials to "plunder the natives free of any control." Moved to take action against such injustice, Kropotkin also saw the futility of working within a system that was built on exploitation.

I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever.

It was this commitment to political change that sealed his fate and set him on the path of a radical. Upon his return Kropotkin received great acclaim for the scientific papers he wrote during his travels in Siberia and he was subsequently awarded a gold medal from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. In March 1872, after delivering a paper on the origins of the Ice Age, Kropotkin was nominated to chair the Society's section on physical geography. Hours later he was arrested and imprisoned along with other members of the Chaikovtsky Circle, an organization of Russian scholars to which he belonged who translated radical literature from Europe and disseminated it amongst the peasantry. Imprisoned for four years, Kropotkin was eventually able to escape from a prison hospital and found refuge among the underground network of subversives scattered throughout Europe. It was only then, after having experienced first hand the abuses of dictatorship, that he committed himself to the life of a revolutionary.

Chased from one country to the next Kropotkin challenged authority wherever he could put pen to paper. He also drew a practical lesson from his experience as a naturalist in Siberia: when living in a hostile environment the most successful strategy is to cooperate with other members of your group against a common threat. But, for Kropotkin, this mutual aid had to be voluntary and any force or coercion -- even if it was believed that the end justified the means -- had to be resisted as an affront to individual liberty. As a political thinker, Kropotkin was as likely to be criticized by Socialists and Marxists for his individualism and rejection of orthodoxy as he was by members of the aristocracy for pointing out the abuses of their class. However, it was in 1888, soon after fleeing Continental Europe to escape political persecution, that he challenged the famed naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley when the latter was engaged in a political project of his own.

The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part III will conclude next week at Deborah Blum's Speakeasy Science following a stop at Carin


[1] Quotes come from (in order) The Gentleman's Magazine, The Daily Mail, Evening News, and The Spectator. See: Haia Shpayer-Makov (1987). "The Reception of Peter Kropotkin in Britain, 1886-1917," Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 19(3): 373-90.

[2] Patricia Hollis (1973). Class and Conflict in Nineteenth-Century England, 1815-1850, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Preston Williams Slosson (1916). The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

[3] Daniel P. Todes (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, London: Oxford University Press.


Update by Dr. SkySkull: Thanks to Eric for this awesome post! Be sure to follow future stops on his exile tour at Primate Diaries in Exile, through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter.

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Weird science facts, April 11-April 24

Aug 11 2010 Published by under [PhysicalScience], Weirdscifacts

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from April 11 - April 24 are below the fold!

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Right-wing refutations of relativity really, really wrong!

Aug 09 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, Relativity

Back when I first started my blog, I spent a lot more time dealing with crazy people who are convinced that Einstein's theories of relativity are wrong (see here, here and here).  More recently, I haven't spent a lot of time on the crazy train, but I have been meaning to get back to my long-neglected series of posts explaining relativity.

Enter Conservapedia, the right-wing version of Wikipedia intended to combat the liberal bias in reality!  Over the past day, Twitter has been abuzz with tweets¹ on the Conservapedia page on "Counterexamples to relativity", provides a list of 24 "points" that attempt to show the weakness of Einstein's crazy ideas!

In my mind, perhaps the most despicable sort of denialism or crankery, however, is that which is based on some sort of political or religious ideology.  This is clearly what is going on here, and the author relies on a familiar form of rhetorical trickery known as the "Gish Gallop": throw as many claims out there as possible, regardless of their validity, with the realization that most people will be swayed by the amount of "evidence", and not look too closely at the details.

Looking at the "evidence", it is clear that there isn't a single point made that isn't misleading, incoherent, or simply dishonest.  A person reading the Conservapedia post will be measurably more ignorant afterwards, and I get the distinct impression that this is what the author intended.

But never fear, dear reader!  I'm here to go through the list of some of the most entertaining assertions, and explain why they're nonsense. Why bother, you ask?  For one thing, entertainment.  For another, there's always a chance that someone may come across the Conservapedia entry and look for some sort of counterbalance... someone should write one!

One caveat: I can't guarantee that the list I present will match the list on the Conservapedia page.  I saved the tweeted list, but after all the internet attention, it was reduced to four points.  Soon afterwards,  it reverted to the original list again.  There's no guarantee that it will remain in its current form, though...

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: Chemistry extravaganza!

Aug 09 2010 Published by under [Etc], General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

This week's set of editor's selections is a "chemistry extravaganza"! The posts that jumped out at me were heavily focused on the science and techniques of chemistry. Enjoy!

  • Determining the structure by looking at the molecule. Anyone who has taken at least high school chemistry knows that determining the structural properties of a molecule is a very difficult process. Now, as Lars Fischer of EuCheMS 2010 Blog reports, researchers have been able to use atomic force microscopy to directly image individual molecules!
  • How bacteria help create dinosaur fossils. Fossilization has traditionally been treated as a purely chemical process: bone is replaced gradually by mineral. However, recent research suggests that bacteria may actually play a crucial role in the formation of such fossils; Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking reports.
  • A simplified yet quantitative model for macromolecular crowding. Research into biological processes such as protein folding are often done with the proteins in solution; however, the interior of cells are crowded with stuff and that crowding effects what can and will happen. Michael Long of Phased reports on new simulations designed to understand such crowding.
  • Foldit: Innovative biology for gamers and Humans beat computers in predicting protein structures. Speaking of protein folding, here we have two different reports on a novel technique for studying the phenomenon! It has become somewhat commonplace to use crowdsourcing to help researchers tackle complex problems. However, Grrlscientist of This Scientific Life and the eponymous The Curious Wavefunction report on a new strategy: making protein-folding research into a video game!

Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" suggestions!

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Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?

Aug 07 2010 Published by under Weird fiction

For those who are new to Skulls in the Stars, my other major topic -- other than science -- is "weird fiction", often but not exclusively of the late 1800s/early 1900s.  "Weird fiction" is a term that broadly describes any sort of tale that includes some aspect of the unreal: horror, science fiction, fantasy, and things that are genuinely unclassifiable.

I like to argue that there are threads that tie weird fiction and science blogging together -- weird fiction has historically drawn upon the science of its time to fuel its ideas and give them a plausible feel.  Weird visionary H.P. Lovecraft used the then modern theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to craft a new type of cosmic horror, and was knowledegable enough about science to write an astronomy column for his local paper.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), a science fiction utopian novel, introduces robots, ray guns, the equivalent of jetpacks -- and justifies it using direct quotations of Michael Faraday!

However, I also review weird fiction on the blog because I adore the genre and blogging gives me a motivation and an excuse to delve into rare, neglected and forgotten works that are truly wonderful.

One of those truly wonderful books is the collection of stories about "John the Balladeer", titled Who Fears the Devil? (1963), by Manly Wade Wellman.  I've been aware of this collection for some time, but waited to read it until the release of Paizo Press' new edition in February of this year:

This isn't my first encounter with Wellman's work, however; I previously reviewed Wellman's sublimely silly and naive novella Giants From Eternity, which featured history's greatest scientists resurrected to do battle with an alien invader! This isn't even my first encounter with "John the Balladeer": I also blogged about Wellman's series of five novels featuring the character; you can read the description of those books here.

What can I say about John the Balladeer, also known as "Silver John"?  He is an Appalachian mountain man and wanderer who travels the wilds of the South meeting folks, learning new songs, and performing to pay his way.  The wilderness of Wellman's imagination is a dangerous land populated with the fearsome creatures of Southern folklore, and Who Fears the Devil? is a collection of tales in which John faces off against supernatural evil using only his wits, his brawn, his goodness, and his silver-stringed guitar!

These are some of the most beautiful and I dare say inspiring stories I've ever read.  There has never been another character quite like Silver John, and I venture to say there will never be again.  Let's take a closer look at Wellman and the stories of 'Devil...

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Archives are up!

Aug 05 2010 Published by under Personal

I put in a little extra time this evening and managed to figure out how to transfer my blog archives over to the new site here!  Everything seems to be present and accounted for, though I may have to check whether the links are correct or not.

Anyway, if you're new to my blogging and want to check out my earlier work, now you can do it all in one place!

(Update: I have a lot of LaTeX repairing to do, and a lot of link fixing to do!)

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Primate Diaries in exile!

Aug 05 2010 Published by under [Etc]

This seems like a good time to remind folks about Eric Michael Johnson's "Primate Diaries in Exile" tour! Since leaving Scienceblogs in the wake of PepsiGate, Eric has been "touring" various blogs and providing guest posts. He's set up a blogger site to keep track of the various stops along the way; so far, these include:

  1. July 19: Scientific Ethics and the Myth of Stalin's Ape-Man Superwarriors, over at John McKay's site.
  2. July 26: For Great Apes, Addressing Inequality is Child’s Play, over at Neuron Culture.
  3. August 4: The Scientist and the Anarchist - Part I, over at Cocktail Party Physics.

Eric's next stop will be right here at Skulls in the Stars, probably early next week!  In the meantime, you can keep track of Eric's tour through the twitter hashtag #PDEx, or directly through his Twitter account at @ericmjohnson!

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Attack of the giant squid! (1874)

Last week, I ventured outside of my usual areas of expertise to discuss a paper I had stumbled across in a volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, dated 1790, "letter relative to the kraken". This prompted Sarah of The Language of Bad Physics to ask,

I love the articles you find for these. It got me looking, can you find the actual sources for NfL sightings? The 1873 "attack"?

It was an awesome question, and I knew immediately what she was talking about!  For those who don't know, in 1873 a fisherman had a genuine battle with a giant squid off the coast of Newfoundland.  This battle, the only one of its kind I am aware of, was also momentous in that it resulted in the first giant squid specimen studied scientifically on land!

I was immediately intrigued, and went searching.  With my uber-internet search skills, I managed to find the paper within an hour!  The article is a letter by M. Murray, "Capture of a gigantic squid at Newfoundland," The American Naturalist 8 (1874), 120-124.¹

Though if I keep writing posts about ocean life, I'm going to bring down the wrath of the Southern Friend Science Network or Deep Sea News upon me, I can't resist discussing this paper.  Giant squid have been a topic of fascination for me for years, and this letter is too much fun!

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11 days until the “fools, failures and frauds” edition of The Giant’s Shoulders!

Aug 04 2010 Published by under [Etc]

I have almost been negligent in pointing out that there’s only 11 days left before the deadline of the next edition of The Giant’s Shoulders history of science blog carnival!  This is a special edition, hosted by scicurious, and is known as the “fools, failures and frauds” edition, commemorating the history of those scientific discoveries that didn’t work out as intended!

Consider submitting a history of science post that describes (a) some really stupid or crazy scientific research (or researchers), (b) research that didn’t work out as intended or expected, (c) research that was completely fraudulent.  All relevant history entries will be included, but please think about writing something special for this themed edition!

Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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