History and Philosophy of Science

A Humboldtian Renaissance

March 30, 2010
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A Humboldtian Renaissance

Humboldt who? That’s usually the reaction from modern readers when introduced to the father of geography, Alexander von Humboldt. He was admired by Darwin and Jefferson, yet Humboldt is less well-known than the men he inspired. So why is it important to keep his legacy alive? And what does this nineteenth-century German-born naturalist have to offer science and the humanities in the twenty-first century anyway? A lot. At least that’s what the University of Chicago Press thinks, and we’ve begun publishing books that translate his writing and contextualize his explorations. Last year, the Press published The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, Laura Dassow Walls’s reintroduction of this seminal thinker to new audiences. Her book traces Humboldt’s ideas for Cosmos —the book that crowned his career—to his 1799 journey to the Americas, where he first experienced the diversity of nature and of the world’s peoples—and envisioned a new cosmopolitanism that would link ideas, disciplines, and nations into a global web of knowledge and cultures. Walls recently spoke about Humboldt and her book at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and Book TV was there to film the presentation. After you watch her speech here, be . . .

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Science on Film

March 10, 2010
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Science on Film

The Smithsonian Institution has more than thirteen million images in some seven hundred collections throughout its network of museums, research centers, and the National Zoo. The Bigger Picture is a blog that takes a closer look at the Smithsonian’s holdings and invites readers to consider the impact of photography on our perception of history. In a recent post, Press author Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette considered images from the Smithosian’s Flickr commons of female physicists, including Marie Sklodowska Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie, Lise Meitner, and Herta R. Leng. The fascinating discussion, which looks at the intersection of publicity and politics in the world of physics, can be found here. Around here, LaFollete is known for her analysis of science in different media: her 2008 book Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television transports readers to the early days of radio, when the new medium allowed innovative and optimistic scientists the opportunity to broadcast serious and dignified presentations over the airwaves. Lafollette chronicles the efforts of science popularizers, from 1923 until the mid-1950s, as they negotiated topic, content, and tone in order to gain precious time on the air. Offering a new perspective on the collision between science’s idealistic . . .

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Speaking the truth and exposing the bunk

February 2, 2010
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Speaking the truth and exposing the bunk

Here’s a link to one of the more interesting blogs we’ve stumbled across lately. Rationally Speaking, a blog managed by Massimo Pigliucci, CUNY philosopher and author of Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology, as well as the forthcoming Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, is a spin off Pigliucci’s work on the philosophy of science with a focus on debunking virtually everything from Google, to the idea of American democracy itself. Recently, they’ve started up a new podcast, with the inaugural episode titled “Can history be a science?” and a special Valentines’ day episode on the science and philosophy of love right around the corner. Listen and read at http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/. . . .

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The modern afterlives of the bodies in the bog

January 29, 2010
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The modern afterlives of the bodies in the bog

According to Wikipedia, recorded discoveries of bog bodies—human bodies which have been found remarkably preserved by the unique conditions of the sphagnum bogs in which they are found—go back as far as the 18th century. The mystery surrounding the significance of these bodies and the nature of their demise has for centuries provoked a macabre fascination in the public mind, but until the mid-twentieth century, no one even knew how long the bodies had lain in their muddy graves. As Philip Hoare notes in a recent book review in the Telegraph, it was not until Danish archaeologist PV Glob’s 1969 book The Bog People, that many of these bodies were revealed to be human sacrifices dating back to the early iron age. As Hoare writes “sentenced to death for worldly crimes but slain to propitiate the terrible deities, they were strangled with leather nooses or were pinned face down with wooden struts to drown in the mud.” Hoare continues: As a young girl in Copenhagen, Karin Sanders, , was also a fan of Glob’s book. But hers is a decidedly post-modern account, one which seeks . . .

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Video: Fulvio Melia on Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics

January 19, 2010
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Video: Fulvio Melia on Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics

The University of Arizona in conjunction with PBS has posted an interesting video featuring Fulvio Melia on the topic of his new book Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics. Check it out below. More info on the book follows. For decades after its initial publication Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which used six interlocking equations to describe the effect of gravitation on the shape of space and the flow of time, remained largely a curiosity for scientists. Further research into Einstein’s work was hindered by its extreme complexity and lack of empirical verifiability. That is, until a twenty-nine-year-old Cambridge graduate solved its great riddle in 1963. Roy Kerr’s solution emerged coincidentally with the discovery of black holes that same year and provided fertile testing ground—at long last—for general relativity. Today, scientists routinely cite the Kerr solution, but even among specialists, few know the story of how Kerr cracked Einstein’s code. In Cracking the Einstein Code Fulvio Melia offers an eyewitness account of the events leading up to Kerr’s great discovery. Melia vividly describes how luminaries such as Karl Schwarzschild, David Hilbert, and Emmy Noether set the stage for the Kerr solution; how Kerr came . . .

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A history of preservation

November 18, 2009
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A history of preservation

While we might take for granted the notion that animal species can become extinct—and that, occasionally, humans are the direct cause—among the early pioneers of natural science, the idea that any link in the great chain of being could be broken took a while to sink in. As the Washington Times‘ Claire Hopley notes in a recent review of Mark V. Barrow Jr.’s Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction From the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology: 18th- and early-19th-century scientists and thinkers believed that the world was created with a complete inventory of humans, animals, birds and vegetation, forming a chain of being. The idea that a link in this chain could disappear undermined this fundamental concept. As Jefferson wrote, “Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.” He put the mammoth first in his list of American mammals because he expected that a living example would be discovered as explorers moved westward and encountered wildlife unknown in the east. The existence of uncharted territories, not . . .

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Press Release: Murdin, Secrets of the Universe

November 9, 2009
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Press Release: Murdin, Secrets of the Universe

Discoveries in astronomy challenge our fundamental ideas about the universe. Where the astronomers of antiquity once spoke of fixed stars, we now speak of whirling galaxies and giant supernovae. Where we once thought Earth was the center of the universe, we now see it as a small planet among millions of others, any number of which could also hold life. These dramatic shifts in our perspective hinge on thousands of individual discoveries: moments when it became clear to someone that some part of the universe—whether a planet or a supermassive black hole—was not as it once seemed. Secrets of the Universe invites us to participate in these moments of revelation and wonder as scientists first experienced them. A renowned astronomer himself, Paul Murdin here revisits the most important astronomical discoveries ever made and introduces the scientists who made them in seventy short chapters which can be read consecutively as one narrative or dipped into and savored individually. The book makes even the most complex astronomical phenomena—from supermassive black holes to interstellar nebulae—wholly accessible to newcomers and general readers. It also features 400 full-color images, many of which would fit comfortably in the pages of Sky & Telescope or National Geographic. . . .

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The Birth of Black Hole Physics

October 12, 2009
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The Birth of Black Hole Physics

Black holes are undoubtedly one of the all-time coolest phenomena in astrophysics. With his theory of relativity, Einstein initially predicted their existence as the inevitable result of gravitation on some of the more massive objects in the universe. But according to Fulvio Melia’s new book Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics, for more than four decades after the publication of Einstein’s ideas, this phenomenon, along with the rest of Einstein’s theory, remained a curious abstraction for most scientists who lacked the final set of equations that would allow them to empirically verify its principles. Then came Roy Kerr, the twenty-nine-year-old Cambridge graduate who solved the great riddle in 1963, transforming Einstein’s theory into an applicable description of how real objects in the universe actually behave—including black holes. As a recent review in the New Scientist notes: The most intriguing application of Kerr’s solution is in describing objects that are so massive and so dense that their gravitational field prevents even light from escaping. Einstein himself was skeptical that such “black holes” could exist in nature. Just as Kerr was developing his solution, however, the first compelling evidence for black holes was found. Today, black . . .

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A giant moose goes to Paris

October 8, 2009
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A giant moose goes to Paris

In the wake of the American revolution, world-renowned French naturalist Count Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon in his Histoire Naturelle opined that the flora and fauna of the New World (humans included) were inferior to European specimens. Buffon’s theory of American “degeneracy” began a French and American culture war, as prominent Americans, among them Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, fought to refute the European claims. As a recent review in Natural History magazine notes, Lee Allen Dugatkin’s Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, vividly recreates these debates, including the amazing story—referenced in the book’s title—of Jefferson’s shipment of a full-grown moose carcass to Buffon, in the hopes of definitively proving that North American fauna were every bit the equal of Europe’s. Laurence A. Marschall writes for Natural History: He succeeded, with the help of correspondents in New England, who arranged to kill a moose in Vermont, cart it to the coast, and ship its skeleton and skin to Paris, where it arrived around October 1, 1787. Unfortunately, Buffon died within little more than a year of the moose, writing nothing more on the subject, so we will never know if he was convinced of the error . . .

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Press Release: Melia, Cracking the Einstein Code

October 7, 2009
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Press Release: Melia, Cracking the Einstein Code

Because Albert Einstein’s equations so accurately describe the world around us, they seem timeless. But in truth, we have only understood how to apply his theory of general relativity for less than fifty years. When Einstein published his description of the effect of gravitation on the shape of space and the flow of time in 1916, few scientists knew what to do with it. Enter Roy Kerr, a twenty-nine-year-old Cambridge graduate who solved the great riddle in 1963. The solution he proposed emerged coincidentally with the discovery of black holes that same year and provided fertile testing ground—at long last—for general relativity. Today scientists routinely cite the Kerr solution, but even among specialists few know the story of how Kerr cracked Einstein’s code. Part biography, part chronicle of scientific discovery, Cracking the Einstein Code unmasks the history behind the search for a real-world solution to Einstein’s field equations. Offering an eyewitness account of the events leading up to Kerr’s great discovery, Fulvio Melia vividly describes how luminaries such as Karl Schwarzschild, David Hilbert, and Emmy Noether set the stage for the Kerr solution; how Kerr came to make his breakthrough; and how scientists such as Roger Penrose, Kip Thorne, and . . .

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