Four Revolutions: Some Things about Science and Human Nature Never Change

Four RevolutionsEverything you’ve always understood about science being self-correcting, becoming more accurate all the time as new evidence comes in? Well, that’s absolutely true. At least, it is true over the long term. BUT…

According to James Lawrence Powell in his new book, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that a new, more accurate theory about a pivotal aspect of science will be fought tooth and nail and resisted with considerable vehemence, not to mention ridicule, possibly for decades, until it is rather abruptly and matter-of-factly accepted as the obvious truth. At least, that’s how it was for four of the most important theories in the history of science, relating to the nature and history of the earth itself.

This probably happens with “smaller” theories too, where one scientist clings to an older theory about the mechanisms of an obscure single cell, while another scientist provides evidence for a different mechanism. But when it comes to the Biggies—theories that are foundational, that account for the environment in which billions of other scientific events take place—oh, those are going to be fought over, you’d better believe it.

The four divisions in Powell’s book sum up these theories very nicely: Deep Time (the age of the earth), Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics, Meteorite Impact (did it happen? can it happen again?), and Global Warming. One by one over a century or two, each of these concepts intruded into the scientific world view, each of them, in a way, setting the stage for the next one. And all along the way, geologists, biologists, and physicists resisted them with a passion. What was almost as intriguing as this great drama itself, though, was the cast of characters. As you progress through each section, you find yourself thinking, about some revered geologist or physicist, “What? He resisted THIS one too, despite the evidence?” The same “old guard” or, as time went on, their students, always seemed to dig their heels in and never accept the new evidence.

Apart from giving us a fascinating read in the history of science, Powell shows us two things about human nature in this book. The first is that it is as rampant in scientific endeavour as it is in any other human activity. Yes, some people cling to well-earned reputations and can’t see why the standard answers that have served for so long should suddenly be thrown out. And no doubt there are some big egos. Some of the ego is about not wanting to be shown to be wrong before the entire scientific community. But some of it is also a desire not to see one’s entire life’s work proven erroneous and all to have been for nothing. It’s hardly a surprise that that can be a bitter pill to swallow; nor is it a surprise when someone fights against that.

But another thing Powell shows us about human nature is that the tactics of deniers of a new major theory don’t change much. Opposers always seem to provide weak theories or explanations to try to preserve the old theory, that don’t stand up to the new facts. And when those explanations don’t repel the change, these people resort to personal attacks on those who promote the new theories.

This may sound familiar to those scientists currently bringing forward the evidence for global climate change. But they can take heart that this understanding of the world will likely be considered the standard understanding in just another few years. (Let’s hope the people in government get with the program too, as soon as possible, instead of continuing to cling to dead theory that could ruin the world.)

James Lawrence Powell, having a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, is in a position to know something about this subject. He taught geology at Oberlin College for twenty-some years, and is currently the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. He gives us a compelling and thorough tour of the history of some powerful changes in what we know about the world as well as the wrestlings it took to get those changes recognized.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how the self-correcting nature of science works behind the scenes, where the facts and evidence, always win—eventually.

2014, Columbia University Press
384 pages USD $31.50/CDN $35.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0231164481

Another Detour: a History of the Alphabet!

Language Visible

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am fascinated by the history of writing and by the alphabet in particular. I think the alphabet is probably the best invention ever. Or at least, I’d put it in the top five, along with things like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, and the discovery of mathematics and the laws of physics. It’s that significant and world-changing.

So imagine how excited I was when I discovered a book by David Sacks: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z! (Not its only title. It’s complicated. **) What the book is is a history of how the English language got the 26 letters it has today. In fact — we almost had just 24 letters, since “J” and “V” did not get officially accepted as part of the alphabet until the mid-nineteenth century. That’s just one of the many interesting (to me) facts that this book presents.

David Sacks, a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa in Canada, introduces the general history of the alphabet before getting down to the history of each individual letter. And right there, I learned something I hadn’t realized: scholars no longer think that alphabetic writing began with the Phoenicians! Those people took it up when it was already a thousand years old. It seems that even this can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where some workers or soldiers in the employ of Egypt grabbed hieroglyphs for words that started with certain sounds, and used those pictures to represent the sounds themselves. Egyptian inscriptions have been found that show this alphabet in use for a Semitic language.

Through the Phoenicians, who refined this alphabet, and then through the Greeks (via trade with the Phoenicians) and then the Romans (adopting Greek writing), and then the various societies that arose as the Roman Empire vanished, we can trace those original Egyptian shapes as they gradually change into the forms and sounds that most of our letters have today. And an even more fascinating fact is that in virtually every language in the world that uses an actual alphabet instead of pictographs or syllabic writing, its alphabet descends from that original alphabet created in Egypt, either through the Phoenician alphabet or a sister South Arabian alphabet. Isn’t that cool?

Sacks also researched the history of each individual letter (and even some letters that no longer exist) and gives each letter its own chapter in the book. So as well as learning things like how the letter “F” actually began as the “W” sound and how it got changed, we learn how some letters have taken on a certain character over the centuries. (“A” means top-notch or top of the class, while the kind of lacklustre “E for effort” got a new lease on life with the development of the Internet and things like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” And we know the various naughty things that “F” gets up to, while “V,” and “W” can thank their lucky stars that they had the mother they did — “U.”)

Along the way, we also learn some of the history of the societies through which the alphabet passed. We find out just how the trade between the Phoenicians and the Greeks moved the alphabet westward. (Imagine! If the Phoenicians hadn’t ventured as far as they did, we might be expressing things in very complicated, cumbersome pictographs at this very moment. Imagine a blog written like that.) And we realize that many of the Greek names for letters, which we are so familiar with through mathematics and other disciplines, are simply a translation of the original Semitic letter names into more Greek-sounding words. So the Semitic “daleth” became “delta.” “Gimel” became “gamma.” “Lamed” became “lambda.” “Kaph” became “kappa.” And so on.

We aren’t that far away from that very first alphabet, whatever we may think. Thanks to a rudimentary Egyptian picture=sound system picked up by groups of soldiers and transferred to their own Semitic language, there is a vast world of information and literature out there, in almost countless languages and dialects, that would have been much harder (if not impossible) to develop or to express if that ancient alphabet hadn’t existed.

If you love history and especially if you love the intricacies and history of language, I bet you’d really love this book.

(** See, regarding the book title, the thing is, according to Sacks, that he “took some bad advice.” Which is why the hardcover has the name of the book I read, while the name of the Canadian paperback is Letter Perfect: The A to Z History of our Alphabet, the name of the U.S. paperback is Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z, and the U.K. hardocver and paperback are both just called The Alphabet. Like I said above–complicated.)

(And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend another post of mine on one of my writing blogs: Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever.)

Reading Through the Bookcase: Artemis Fowl

My five Artemis Fowl books

I saved this till I had read all five of my Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer. (Even though I detoured twice before I finished the lot.)

When the Harry Potter books were well underway, a few other books began to appear that seemed to be taking advantage of the YA desire for fantasy novels along similar lines: stories that involved older kids or younger teens from our own world who suddenly discovered that there was a magical dimension to the world that remained hidden from everyone else (especially adults). One of the main series that started in the midst of Pottermania was the Artemis Fowl series.

It’s about a wealthy, pre-teen genius boy who discovers that the denizens of the old Faerie world of the legends (primarily Irish) had really existed but had just moved underground to create a whole new society there, when they came into conflict with humans. Artemis, being a self-proclaimed criminal mastermind, calculates how to find this fairy world, reasoning that he should be able to trick that society into handing over the legendary “pot of gold” that has been talked about in so many tales and myths. He manages to capture Holly Short, an elf who is the first female captain of the Lower Elements Police Recon squad (LEP Recon. Leprecon. Get it?), and  demands a large amount of fairy gold as a ransom.

And so it all begins! In the five books I have (naturally I don’t have all eight; when do I ever have a complete set??), we watch Artemis get more and more human and, more importantly, humane. Even while he retains his deviousness, he comes to appreciate and even love the citizens of Haven City, below ground (including such characters as Foaly the technowizard centaur and Mulch Diggums, a member of the dwarf race who burrow underground in a most…interesting way). And most of all, Artemis appreciates that the existence of Haven City and all the fairy races must remain a secret from humanity, lest other humans try to exploit the magical races and end up destroying them. So the fairies and Artemis do a great deal for each other over several years, and Holly Short develops a lasting friendship with Artemis and his brilliant and worldly-wise bodyguard, Butler, with all his underworld connections and martial arts skills.

Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library, September 2011

Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library, September 2011

I have friends who think that the Artemis Fowl books were just a “ripoff,” of sorts, of the Harry Potter books. The first Fowl book was published flush in the middle of the Potter popularity. And the series, as my friends are swift to point out, isn’t nearly as unified and deep in its ideas. Nor, they say, is it written all that well.

Frankly, I don’t agree, and I don’t care anyway.If this series were a clear copy of the storyline from the Potter books, that would be a different matter. (She says, shuddering at the horrible memory of The Sword of Shannara and the plot of The Lord of the Rings.) It’s true that this series takes up figures from legend and folklore and brings them into this world. So did the Narnia books. So do a lot of other books. And yes, the main character starts out about the same age as Harry Potter. (Artemis, too, was eleven years old at the beginning, and given that there are three more books after the ones I have, he’s likely to end up about the same age as Harry did.) It is said that there are only, really, about seven or eight basic storylines in the world, and that every story ever told is a variation of one of them. It doesn’t bother me that there are some similarities between stories. A pre-teen discovers a secret magical world connected to this one–how different could you make it, really?

And as to this series’ “not being written very well”…well, that has been a big complaint from people who don’t like the Harry Potter books too. (“She’s really not a very good writer.” How often I’ve heard that from people! The adults, that is, who weren’t sitting eagerly waiting for the next book or the next movie.) Neither of these series is grand, High Literature. But who cares? Eoin Colfer tells a really good story for the people who enjoy this sort of tale, and he adds some good laughs into the mix as well.

So I had a really nice trip through this part of the top shelf of my SF&F bookcase.

If you’re an Artemis Fowl fan yourself, it might interest you to know that Disney is supposedly developing a movie. If so, I can’t wait to see it!

And check out my own description, three years ago today, of an evening with Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library.

A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin