Tag Archives: scientists

Science carries on while society falls apart

Turning on the news first thing in the morning has been a lifelong habit of me. Just like thousands of other people, I would hate to think that the something exciting had happened overnight without my knowing about it. Recently, however, the morning news has been so discouraging that I often switch to music for the rest of the day. Learning more about natural disasters thousands of miles from home, or human foolishness in capitals across the world makes a harsh background to our everyday life.

Sometimes it seems the only way to remain calm and carry on is to ignore the feverish

neutron starGW170817.rect_-150x150

Neutron star

 

activity of politicians, pundits and the cruelties of societies turning on one another. Music is a good escape, and so is paying attention to the work of scientists whose dramatic breakthroughs bring good news to a world absorbed in the bad news of politics. This week we had the dramatic story of how astronomers discovered the collision of two neutron stars, an event that had been predicted but never before actually seen. As the Scientific American announced in its story about the event, “Spacetime ripples from a stellar cataclysm in a distant galaxy help explain the cosmic origins of gold, and chart the course for a new age of “multi-messenger” astronomy”

Even as our ordinary world carries on its squabbling about who-said-what and which party will win the prize in the next election, science is carrying on the important work of the world—discovering new knowledge and sharing it with all of us.

Women have long played a major role in astronomy, and in honor of this event I want to call your attention to the role of women in studying the stars. Several years ago I wrote a blog post about Caroline Herschel, one of the pioneers. Caroline and her brother William were able to work with the primitive telescopes available in the 18th century to chart the movements of stars. Caroline specialized in finding comets as they flashed across the sky.

It wasn’t only solitary astronomers who were able to advance the science. The most recent book from Dava Sobel, who has written many books about science and scientists for the general reader, offers a realistic account of how the science works and how many individuals work together to discover the truth about scientific phenomena. She recognized the work of the women astronomers at Harvard University in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. The advances made by these late 19th and early 20th century astronomers still surprise and intrigue readers who wonder how we know what we do about stars and other natural phenomena. Slow, patient cooperation among a large number of scientists was the key to the discovery of how our universe is constructed.

 

The methods of science—the patience and cooperation of many individuals should be an inspiration to the men and women who are working to make our political and social world a better place to live. The search for knowledge and for solutions to problems grows out of patient cooperation, not hasty judgments and angry quarreling. Reading about people who actually advanced humanity can make us a bit more optimistic about our ability to work together now to overcome the challenges facing people everywhere.

3 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Women in the news

Marching for the Facts

science march 2017The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.

In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.

Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.

Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer

education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.

Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.

It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.

Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.

It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.science march02 2017

5 Comments

Filed under San Francisco events, Woman of the Week

Who told us about climate change?

Just a few miles from where I live in San Francisco, the effects of climate change are obvious to everyone. This winter’s record El Nino has brought rain storms that have eroded beach communities along the Pacific. This photo from the San Francisco Chronicle Pacifica_2016shows how some of the homes in the city of Pacifica are teetering on the edge of a cliff over the ocean. Scientists are predicting that climate change will bring stronger and harsher El Nino storms in years to come because of the warming oceans caused in large part by human activity. Anyone who reads newspapers or watches news on TV know that this is true, yet somehow many of the Republican candidates who want to lead the country cannot seem to accept the facts.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still get candidates saying things like this: “If you look to the satellite data in the last 18 years there has been zero recorded warming. Now the global warming alarmists, that’s a problem for their theories. Their computer models show massive warming the satellite says it ain’t happening. We’ve discovered that NOAA, the federal government agencies are cooking the books,” Ted Cruz is quoted as saying that in 2015. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the

Humboldt and Goethe

Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe and other friends.

greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. One of the other ideas that he developed in South America was a hatred of slavery, because he saw the cruelty of the European practice of enslaving native peoples. Slowly many of his Humboldt in his libraryideas have been accepted by mainstream thinkers. Slavery has disappeared in much of the modern world.  Let’s hope that more of the climate change deniers will continue to think about the questions and ideas that he raised.

We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world.  

 

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized