Sunday, October 22, 2017

David Wootton, The Invention of Science

With the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe suffered a catastrophic loss of knowledge. Most of the books that had circulated in the empire were lost, and the traditions of learning maintained by academies in Athens, Alexandria, and other places were broken. The losses in math and science were among the worst, since the monks who preserved many books had little interest in them. The political chaos and economic decline meant that the society simply could not afford to maintain so many leisured scholars, and what learning there was focused on the needs of the church. So when Europe's economic and political situation improved from the 12th century onward, intellectuals were focused on recovering what had been lost from the Roman past.

By the 1500s that had been achieved: Europe had science and mathematics more or less equal to that of the Classical world. And then in the 1600s western Europe rocketed ahead, creating science and math that by 1800 far surpassed anything created before.

Why? How? Because one of the interesting things about ancient science is that it ceased to make much progress long before the Goths sacked Rome. Many short histories of ancient mathematics end with Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC, and many short histories of ancient science end with Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. The same thing goes for ancient sculpture and poetry, which are generally held to have peaked centuries before barbarians burned down the workshops and beheaded the poets. It is as if classical culture ran out of steam. Its creative impulses were somehow exhausted before its people ran out of time, including whatever impulses drove its science.

Illustration from William Gilbert's On Magnets, Published in 1600

But so far there is no sign of that happening with modern science. This is because, argues David Wootton in The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution (2015), modern science is a radical new invention. The Invention of Science is a massive book, and it sums up Wootton's long career studying these questions. It also sums up a gigantic amount of scholarship; I was astonished at how much attention has been given to the letters and journals of third-rate Renaissance scientists. I don't really recommend for anyone who isn't a big fan of this topic, but if you are it is amazing.

Wootton argues that two things differentiate modern science from its ancient counterpart. First, our whole world is just bigger and more dynamic than the classical world. Modern scientists are often described as explorers, discovering new continents of knowledge, which is not a metaphor anyone would have employed before actual mariners discovered new land masses. Wootton makes much of Columbus and the New World serving both to discredit ancient knowledge and to provide a model of adding new knowledge. After all, one major school of ancient philosophy, neoplatonism, held that new knowledge is by definition impossible, and no classical thinker was very much interested in discovery. The goal of Aristotelian physicists was to derive a complete model of the world via logical deduction from simple principles, on the model of geometry. This model lasted through the time of Galileo, who tried to prove his theories of motion using geometry. Modern science on the contrary has been focused first on discovering new facts (a new word to which Wootton devotes a whole chapter) and second on developing new theories, hypotheses or laws to explain them. It thus takes its direction from other parts of Galileo's work, his careful measurements of rolling balls and his use of a telescope to discover new things in the heavens.

Diagram of Robert Boyle's Air Pump, c. 1660

The second new thing about modern science is the formation of a community of scientists who shared results with each other and excitedly replicated each other's experiments. There had been experimenters in the past, for example the 11th century Muslim physicist Ibn al-Haytham, who did pioneering work in optics. But rather than trying to check Ibn al-Haytham's results, or extend them with additional experiments, most readers simply accepted them. By the mid 1600s every claim of an experimental discovery would be checked by several other experimenters within a year. For this to happen, of course, there had to be ways of spreading the word. This is why Wootton thinks the printing press was another vital contributor to modern science. Word of some early experiments spread around Europe via letters between scientists, but publication of results in journals and books eventually became key. This also led to the data being cached in libraries around the continent where it could easily be consulted. By the time Newton did his work on optics he could draw on a library of printed books that included work by dozens of experimenters stretching back to Ibn al-Haytham. This community also had an institutional basis both in the universities and in the new scientific societies, such and the Royal Society in Britain.

Along the way, science shed the model of logical proof that had been its center. The new science was based on inference from experimental data, and it therefore lacked certainty. By the end of the 1600s, several commenters on science had noted this, some wistfully but others proudly. Newton famously embraced this by refusing to guess at the cause of gravity: hypothesis non fingo. But the new model of seeking data on a massive scale, publishing it so that others can use or check it, and then trying to craft explanations launched modern science onto an accelerating trajectory that shows no sign of slowing.

The Czech Election and Demise of the Mainstream

In the Czech Republic, more evidence that voters are in a terrible mood, and are blaming mainstream politicians for their problems:
An anti-establishment party founded by a billionaire oligarch overpowered the Czech Republic’s longstanding mainstream parties on Saturday, making the blunt-talking, enigmatic tycoon almost certain to become prime minister in a coalition government.

Ano, the party formed by Andrej Babis, 63, had nearly 30 percent of the vote with 99 percent of ballots counted. The Social Democrats, who have been at the center of Czech politics for a quarter-century and had finished first in the previous election, came in a distant sixth with just 7 percent. The Communists were fifth. And the Christian Democrats, another party that traces its roots to the country’s founding, got less than 6 percent, perilously close to the cutoff to qualify for seats in Parliament.

Ano was not the only anti-establishment party to do well. The extreme right-wing Freedom & Direct Democracy, with 10.7 percent, doubled its proportion from the previous election. That was just a fraction of a percentage point behind the youth-oriented Czech Pirate Party, an anti-establishment movement from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
We saw this first in Italy (naturally), where the mainstream parties collapsed under scandals back in 1994, bringing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to power. More recently Poland and Hungary have gone to right-wing nationalists, and Austria has come close to doing the same, while populist parties of the right and left have come to prominence in Spain and Greece. In the US, we have Trump.

I think a few things are behind this. One is a deep sense that the world system is working a lot better for international billionaires than for the rest of us. But Social Democratic parties are not benefiting, because they 1) are too closely allied with the international elite, 2) seem to care more about refugees than their own citizens, and 3) are associated in people's minds with stifling bureaucracy. Plus, they just seem stodgy; consider that among the prominent leaders of the mainstream left are 1960s leftovers Bernie Sanders (76) and Jeremy Corbyn (68). Thus the interest of young leftists has gone in Europe to "Pirate" parties and in the US to non-party movements like Black Lives Matter and AntiFa.

The second issue I would point to is questions of identity. Politics in both Europe and the US has a lot to with who "we" are. The most recent American election was almost entirely about who is being written out of the national story, Hillary supporters complaining that it is women, blacks, immigrants, and the poor, Trump supporters that it is ordinary white folks. In Europe, attempts to create a "European" identity have succeeded only with the well-educated and ambitious, widening the gulf between them and ordinary people who want to stay close to home. These questions are of course ancient, but they were papered over in the post-World War II era by the startling rise in prosperity and the sense of mission spawned by the Cold War and the spread of democracy, as well as the fear of falling back into the abyss of 1914-1945. Now they are back. The rise in prosperity has slowed or stopped, the memory of Depression and Blitzkrieg has faded, and the old dreams of the UN and the EU seem un-compelling.

The third issue is immigration. This may have become the sharpest political divide in both the US and Europe, because some people hate it and some people love it. I do not believe there is any simple answer here, because as long as millions are crossing borders they will create political tension. What we really need is peace in the Middle East and economic growth and political stability in Central America, but I am not holding my breath for either.

The mainstream political parties were not created to deal with the issues, and their responses to all of them have been very clumsy. Add to all of this the spiritual depression that has settled on the West, manifesting in Apocalyptic literature, generalized anxiety, a failure of purpose, and a sense that nothing has meaning, and we get politics dominated by anger, mistrust, pointless gestures, dumb slogans, and showmanship.

Another thing that strikes me about recent events is the power of media manipulation. Like Berlusconi, Andrej Babis is a media tycoon who own's his nation's two major newspapers and other media outlets. In the current vacuum of strong beliefs, a powerful media narrative repeated over and over seems able to change how people think and feel. For the populist right, the narrative is corruption: the politicians are joining with the international billionaires to fleece you, the ordinary person, and everything they say is a lie. As on Fox News, hints of scandal are magnified by constant attention, and any word from a leader that smacks of contempt for the little man is repeated ad nauseam. This fear of corruption is easy to spread because of the widespread sense that the elite is stealing from the rest of us. The fear of outsiders is easy to spread, because it is such a deep human impulse to fear them anyway. These memes spread via social media, becoming entrenched before mainstream politicians have a clue.

Something new is needed. We need ways to rein in the global elite – how about an international convention that would ban secret bank accounts and shadow companies, backed up if necessary by drone strikes on Cayman Islands banks? – and we need ways to help ordinary people that don't involve more bureaucracy. I might start with pre-completed tax forms, which would be easy to do; last time Democrats were in the majority they devoted all their energy to health care and CO2 emissions and never got around to it. More work is needed on health care, and infrastructure. But to my mind what we cannot do is let unending culture war debates consume us, making everyone's blood boil over questions that cannot be definitively settled and that have, I think, little to do with what the West is in such a foul mood.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Annie Soudain

British artist and designer whose linotypes get used for lots of greeting cards, calendars and the like. But they're lovely wherever they appear.







Friday, October 20, 2017

A Floor in Rome

In the Fifteenth-century Palazzo Venezia. From The History Blog.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Another Potomac Morning

Foggy on the river today.

Until it lifted.

Giant sycamore tree, more than 10 feet (3 m) in diameter at the base.

And some actual archaeology, a quartz arrowhead and three potsherds from a new site we discovered yesterday. Sorry about the picture, but it was a phone photo taken in dim morning light.

Rock Art from Tuva

Tuva is a Russian autonomous Republic on the border of Mongolia. It holds some rocky ridges where nomads of the steppes left pictographs for thousands of years. Love this winged horse.


Chariot from the Bronze Age.


Houses.

Scythian deer. More at the Siberian Times.

Coal Still Losing the War Despite Trump's Help

The Trump administration has worked harder and with more focus on helping the coal industry than on anything else I can think of. The result:
Last week, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirement of two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date.
Unlike the rest of the country, Texas has an entirely free market in energy – no subsidies, hardly any regulation of price. In Texas, wind power will surpass coal power some time around January.

For some important issues, who wins the election matters a lot. For others, hardly at all.

Artificial Intelligence is Beating Us

The "constraints of human knowledge" are falling:
Google’s latest AI efforts push beyond the limitations of their human developers. Its artificial intelligence algorithms are teaching themselves how to code and how to play the intricate, yet easy-to-learn ancient board game Go.

This has been quite the week for the company. On Monday, researchers announced that Google’s project AutoML had successfully taught itself to program machine learning software on its own. While it’s limited to basic programming tasks, the code AutoML created was, in some cases, better than the code written by its human counterparts. In a program designed to identify objects in a picture, the AI-created algorithm achieved a 43 percent success rate at the task. The human-developed code, by comparison, only scored 39 percent on the task.

On Wednesday, in a paper published in the journal Nature, DeepMind researchers revealed another remarkable achievement. The newest version of its Go-playing algorithm, dubbed AlphaGo Zero, was not only better than the original AlphaGo, which defeated the world’s best human player in May. This version had taught itself how to play the game. All on its own, given only the basic rules of the game. (The original, by comparison, learned from a database of 100,000 Go games.) According to Google’s researchers, AlphaGo Zero has achieved superhuman-level performance: It won 100–0 against its champion predecessor, AlphaGo.

But DeepMind’s developments go beyond just playing a board game exceedingly well. There are important implications that could positively impact AI in the near future.

“By not using human data—by not using human expertise in any fashion—we’ve actually removed the constraints of human knowledge,” AlphaGo Zero’s lead programmer, David Silver, said at a press conference.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I just finished listening to The Underground Railroad, which won last year's National Book Award for fiction. It's a strange, sad book, and I can't say that I really recommend it. But it is certainly different from any other book you have read.

The central conceit is that the underground railroad is an actual network of train tunnels running under America, connecting the South to the free states. The central character, Cora, is a slave on a Georgia plantation who escapes with the railroad's help. But it doesn't carry her to freedom; instead, it transports her through time as well as space, to endure the different sorts of oppression and crushed hopes African Americans experienced over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This allows Whitehead to explore the legacy of slavery in a broad sense, showing how Cora suffers from it no matter where she goes and how things look on the surface.

I looked up a couple of reviews before I wrote this and they said pretty much the same thing: that Whitehead exposes the reader to slavery's evil in new and striking ways. I didn't feel it. But then I am probably not the reader Whitehead was aiming at. I have read a stack of nonfiction books on slavery and done my own research on slave life, and nothing in any fiction has ever affected me the way the plain records of the past do.

So I wasn't all that impressed by the horrors Whitehead presents, and I found the fictional parts of the book only so-so. Cora is a rather flat character, which is intentional, but not much fun. The plot is predictable, because you know things are never going to work out for the black characters. One of the other running characters is a slave catcher named Ridgeway; I suppose he was supposed to be the villain, but he struck me as no more interesting than Cora, either in his wickedness or his small courtesies. I enjoyed the minor characters much more, including Cora's grandmother, her lazy, dissipated owner, and some of the station masters and conductors Cora meets on the underground railroad. I thought much the best part was the last section, in which Cora has arrived at a free black community created by abolitionists and runaways, where they explore the limits of their freedom and debate what to do about rising tensions with their white neighbors.

But if you want to read a novel about slave life, I much preferred Marlon James' The Book of Night Women.

Are these Faces a Prehistoric Shrine?

Bulgarian archaeologists are calling these human faces, discovered by photographer Miroslav Shobanov, a shrine dating to between 3500 and 3000 BCE.


What do you think? They certainly look like faces, but so do lots of natural rocks.

On the other hand these niches, found nearby, look definitely human-made to me. Pottery was also found nearby, and given that this is a pretty inaccessible spot, maybe it is an ancient shrine.

And while we're on the subject of Bulgarian archaeology, here is a very definite petroglyph, an Orpheus Lyre likely carved by Iron Age Thracians.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Morning on the Potomac


Dawn on the river.

Chimney from an old cabin, likely built in the 1910s.

The dark tower.

Actually that was an old concrete flood gauge, seen more clearly from this angle.

Das Rheingold in Beijing

I spent a good part of Saturday afternoon listening to this production of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the China National Opera House in September 2016. The singing is quite good, but it was really the staging that grabbed me. No stripped down modernism here; this is a folkloric production that mingles European myth with Chinese elements. Sadly there are no subtitles, and I suppose if there were they would be in Chinese anyway. Here are the Rhine Maidens, looking very Chinese.

The dwarf Alberich, who starts the plot by stealing the Rhine Maidens' golden treasure. To do this he has to renounce love, which he does because the Rhine Maidens keep teasing and then rejecting him.

Fricka, Wotan's wife.

Wotan.


The giants. They have built Valhalla for Wotan according to the terms of their contract, and now they have come to collect their payment: the goddess Freya.


Freya clings to her brother Froh, who is dressed as the perfect Chinese prince.

Donner, the god known to the Norse as Thor. He wants to drive off the giants with force, but Wotan stops him, saying that he gave his divine word and breaking it will lead to BAD THINGS.

Loge (Loki), god of fire, who has a clever plan to solve the dilemma: steal the Rhine Maiden's treasure from Alberich and give that to the giants instead.

Mime, Alberich's brother, whom Alberich has enslaved using the power of a mighty ring found in the treasure.

Loge and Wotan get Mime to explain the situation in Nibelheim.

Mime has forged for Alberich a helm called Tarnhelm that allows him to become invisible or assume any shape. Loge and Wotan feign disbelief and get Alberich to demonstrate Tarnhelm's power. First he becomes a dragon. The gods says, that's cool, can you also make yourself smaller?

Alberich assumes the form of a today, and Loge and Wotan capture him.

First the gods demand the gold, which Alberich's slaves, the Niebelungs, deliver. Then they demand the Tarnhelm, and finally the ring of power. After much woeful singing Alberich finally gives up the ring, but he curses it, saying it will bring its bearer only ruin.

The climactic scene: the gods pay the gold to the giants to obtain Freya's release.

But Wotan does not want to give up the ring. The struggle over giving up the ring does not, so far as I know, appear in any traditional source, so this must be where Tolkien got the idea for his ring scenes.

Then the goddess Erda appears and prophesies that if Wotan keeps the ring, it will doom him. She then hints that she has seen many other bad things, but she refuses to give details. Wotan relents and surrenders the ring. The giants immediately fall to fighting over it, and one kills the other. The survivor departs with the treasure.

The conclusion: the gods sing in front of their new home.