Thursday, February 25, 2021

Education, our greatest resource

In his famous book Small is Beautiful (1973), Ernest Schumacher dedicates an interesting chapter to education, which he calls our greatest resource. Let's look at a few quotes from that chapter, whose title is similar to the title of this post:

If western civilisation is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. No civilisation, I am sure, has ever devoted more energy and resources to organised education, and if we believe in nothing else, we certainly believe that education is, or should be, the key to everything. In fact, the belief in education is so strong that we treat it as the residual legatee of all our problems. If the nuclear age brings new dangers; if the advance of genetic engineering opens the doors to new abuses; if commercialism brings new temptations -- the answer must be more and better education.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Technology with a human face

Ernest Schumacher

In his famous 1973 book Small is Beautiful, Ernest Schumacher advocates a technology with a human face, because (according to him) the way modern technology has been developed dehumanizes us. Let's look at a few quotes from the chapter in his book with the same title as this post:

...the modern world has been shaped by technology. It tumbles from crisis to crisis; on all sides there are prophecies of disaster and, indeed, visible signs of breakdown., although the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop... Technology recognises no self-limiting principle... [T]he super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Edward Bellamy: philosophical science fiction

The golden age of science fiction is the name given to the period between 1940 and 1965. The same years are also considered the golden age of cinema. The previous years of the genre, on the other hand, are usually seen as clearly inferior, mainly pulp fiction, and it's common to say that science fiction was in an incipient state, that it had barely emerged from the mists of literary prehistory.

This would be clearly wrong. During those years there were noteworthy works, such as the first version of Murray Leinster's The forgotten planet (1920-21); R.U.R. by Karel Capek (1920), with the first appearance of the word robot; Zamyatin's We (1921), which influenced Aldous Huxley and George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932); and towards the end of this period, Out of the silent planet by C.S. Lewis (1938).

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Intelligent design or random evolution?

Charles Darwin

As all scientific theories, the theory of evolution will always be provisional, but in a century and a half it has been quite well contrasted. It's not likely that a scientific revolution will declare it wrong or obsolete, although perhaps there will be fine tuning, as with Newton's physics and Einstein's theory of general relativity. An attack on the theory of evolution should be based on finding discrepant facts, which up to now have never appeared.

The problem is, some of those who defend the theory of evolution go one step further and offer philosophical speculations and dogmatic statements as though they were testable scientific theories.

As every scientific theory, the theory of evolution is a set of hypotheses that try to explain certain facts. It is based on the verification that species change, and studies the mechanisms that can lead to this change: mutations, DNA, natural selection... Added philosophical connotations are not scientific, whether it is affirmed, with believers, that there is intelligent design; or with atheists, that everything is a consequence of chance.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The fine-structure constant

Arnold Sommerfeld

One of the latest scientific advances of 2020 was a new, more precise measurement of the fine-structure constant. The last value officially accepted in 2018 by the Committee for Data on Science and Technology (CODATA) is equal to 1/137.035999084. The value obtained in December 2020 is equal to 1/137.035999206. It will be seen that the difference with the previous value is very small and affects only the seventh decimal place.

But what is the fine-structure constant? It's a dimensionless constant, defined by the following formula:

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Dating the Turin Shroud

Comparison of positive (left)
and negative (right) photos

The Shroud of Turin (or Sindone, from the Greek σινδών, shroud) is traditionally thought to be the shroud that covered the body of Christ during the three days that he was buried between his death on the cross and his resurrection. The documented part of its history begins in 1357, when it was exhibited for the first time in Lirey (France). In 1453 it was sold to the Duke of Savoy. In 1532 it was damaged in a fire, and in 1578 was transferred to Turin, where it is located today. Although the Catholic Church allows its veneration, it has never pronounced either in favor or against the authenticity of the Shroud, which from the beginning was the subject of controversy, as some claimed it was a contemporary painting, while others considered it authentic.

In 1898 the Shroud was photographed for the first time and the image was found to be much sharper on negatives than on positives, so the original image appears to be roughly equivalent to a photographic negative.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Is there a crisis in theoretical physics?

Nicolaus Copernicus

Physics has been, for the last seven centuries, the queen of sciences: its object is the study of the lowest-level of reality; its most akin to mathematics; it has seen happen the highest number of new, spectacular and revolutionary theories and discoveries. Let's see a few of them:

  • 13th century: Roger Bacon studies reflection, refraction, spherical aberration and the use of lenses to correct vision defects. He also suggests the possibility of building telescopes, microscopes, and flying vehicles.
  • 14th century: Jean Buridan, Nicolás Oresme, Albert of Saxony and the calculators of Merton College revolutionize Mechanics, separating it for the first time from the work of the Greek philosophers, and introducing new concepts such as impetus.
  • 16th century: Copernicus proposes replacing Ptolemy's geocentric system by a much simpler heliocentric system. Kepler modifies the theory of Copernicus and discovers the three empirical laws that bear his name.
  • 17th century: Galileo perfects the telescope and makes with it astronomical discoveries. He also recapitulates and organizes the mechanical discoveries of the 14th century. Newton revolutionizes physics with the theory of universal gravitation, which unifies terrestrial and celestial mechanics, and makes great advances in optics. Other important physicists of that century are Pascal, Huygens, Boyle, Mariotte, and many more.
  • 18th century: Although it's possible to detect a certain slowdown in scientific research, we can mention the Bernoulli brothers, and near the 19th century, Galvani, Volta and Laplace.
  • In the 19th century, discoveries in theoretical and experimental physics and the number of professional physicists increased dramatically. Let's mention just a few of the most important: Dalton, Faraday, Ampère, Gauss, Maxwell, Carnot, Lord Kelvin and Boltzmann.