“The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that can be ignored or, when tested, fail.” Biologist E.O. Wilson set off a mini-firestorm with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal topped by a provocative headline claiming “Great scientists don’t need math.” The actual text was a bit more nuanced than that; Wilson’s main point, supporters say, was to encourage students not to be discouraged from pursuing a career in science just because they struggle with math.
Stepping up to the plate to bat for Wilson’s team, Ashutosh Jogalekar wrote, “In many fields math is a powerful tool, but only a tool nonetheless; what matters is a physical feel for the systems to which it is applied.”
Others didn’t see it this way, most notably Berkeley mathematics professor Edward Frenkel, who wrote an impassioned response for Slate. Chad Orzel also weighed in on the debate. While concurring that Wilson had a valid point, he pinpoints exactly what so many physicists and mathematicians found objectionable: “If you don’t have a mathematical description of something, you don’t really understand it. Observations are all well and good, but without a coherent picture to hold them all together, you don’t really have anything nailed down. Big data alone will not save you, in the absence of a quantitative model.” In a follow-up post, he opines that Wilson may have learned the wrong lesson from his personal experiences.
Enhance your appreciation for math with this American Scientist feature, “Adventures in Mathematical Knitting” (purchase req’d and worth it): “[P]eople have been expressing mathematics through knitting for a long time. The oldest known knitted mathematical surfaces were created by Scottish chemistry professor Alexander Crum Brown.”
This week saw the passing of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — a polarizing figure, needless to say. But here’s a little bit of obscure historical trivia for you: apparently, thanks to her interest in science (she had a chemistry degree), she knew about the W boson discovery before everyone else.
Also passing this week: Martyl Langsdorf, a painter who designed the “doomsday clock” graphic for the June 1947 cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a way to evoke the potential devastation of nuclear weapons. The clock currently is set to 11:55 — five minutes until Doomsday.
Terahertz rays reveal ancient Roman man hidden beneath famous painting at the Louvre. “The technology is a new addition to the palette that art conservators and scientists use to see below the surface and detect changes, including fake signatures and other alterations in a painting. Termed terahertz spectroscopy, it uses beams of electromagnetic radiation that lie between microwaves, like those used in kitchen ovens, and the infrared rays used in TV remote controls. This radiation is relatively weak, does not damage paintings and does not involve exposure to harmful radiation.”
Japanese physicists have achieved the first demonstration of the storage and release of light in a metamaterial.
Listen to the first 760,000 years of the universe. Sonification of the latest data from the ESA’s Planck Mission.
Few animals can compete with a peregrine falcon for pure speed. (Aerodynamics for the win!)
Everything you need to know about dark matter, explained in 7 steps by Corey S. Powell.
David Harris reviews “The Particles,” a new app that aims to guide users through the rich, diverse, and sometimes confusing world of subatomic particles.
FLUIDIC – A Sculpture in Motion: An Interactive Field of 12,000 Spheres Illuminated by Lasers. Per This Colossal: “Surrounded by 3D cameras the piece can sense viewer’s motions which are then translated into light patterns, but amazingly the light supplied to the individual voxels is fully external. An array of high-speed lasers project into the cloud to create the dynamic visuals in real-time.”
Here’s a nice three-minute video introduction to the early days of the Universe, narrated by CERN physicist Tom Whyntie.
Scientists are using carbon and DNA, to push cheap and scalable graphene electronics to the nanoscale.
The Claude Glass “was a small convex mirror in a foldable case that could be carried around in someone’s pocket. Also called a “dark mirror,” it was tinted so that it reflected a scene in shades of gold and gray.”
A hunt for dark matter in a former gold mine — the Los Angeles Times ran a fantastic piece on the LUX experiment.
How Bayes’ Rule Can Make You A Better Thinker: the power of probabalistic reasoning. “Bayes’s Rule is a theorem in probability theory that answers the question, “When you encounter new information, how much should it change your confidence in a belief?” It’s essentially about making decisions under uncertainty, and how we should update or revise our theories as new evidence emerges.”
Iron Man’s Top Ten Heavy Metal Moments—Reflections on the first 50 years of Scientific R & D from Stark Industries.
Spinning Black Holes Are a Drag. How do you describe the properties of a spinning singularity in a simple way? Peter Edmonds has some ideas.
Check out these wonderfully eclectic illustrations to Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650).
NASA will be sending a robot on an asteroid fishing expedition. Per Discovery News: “A hooked asteroid will be tamed and delivered to a rendezvous point of our choosing (much closer to home) to allow a manned expedition easy access. This wouldn’t only be great for science, it could also drive significant technologies intended for robotic asteroid deflection and, perhaps, mining techniques.”
Your LEGO Thing of the Week: LEGO Space Kraken Demolishing a Star Wars Super Star Destroyer by LEGO builder Iain Heath.
Finally, there’s no crying in space — or at least, tears can’t fall in zero gravity because PHYSICS: