Saturday, August 4, 2012
Saturday, June 16, 2012
But you are conscious, only there is no way you can tell the world. You listen to conversations around you -it's an election year, it appears-, you agree, you disagree, you strongly disagree.
You know your family is grieving. You'd like to let them know you are there, but you are locked in, as if in a different plane of existence, in a parallel universe.
One day one of the voices you spend your life listening to to pass the...time?... addresses you.
"Can you hear me?" it says, incongruously. The owner of the voice knows that, whatever the answer is, you will not answer. However, it is clear that the owner of the voice thinks that the answer is yes.
The voice says something odd.
"Imagine you are playing tennis."
You do. You have never played, but you have no trouble imagining the sequence of movements needed to hit the ball. You imagine the sun on your face while you're at it and just for the heck of it.
"Now imagine you are walking around your house. Show us around."
You go upstairs to your room. "This is my room," you'd say. Then down to the yard.
Elation in the other universe.
They make you repeat the tasks. It has been so long since anyone last asked you to do things. Your family talks to you, but they never ask you to perform tasks. They do not really believe you can hear them. Now someone is requiring you, the locked-up patient, to actually do things. How do they know you are responding? You tell yourself they probably have you in some kind of brain scanning machine.
You wait for more instructions, but the voice just wants you to perform these two tasks over and over. Might you be dreaming? What does dreaming mean in your universe?
Then you understand.
"I'm going to ask you some questions", the voice says. "I want you to imagine you're playing tennis if the answer is yes and imagine you're walking around your house if the answer is no, ok?"
Clever, you think (how does that thought show on the brain scanner?)
"Is your father's name Thomas?"
You go around your house.
"Is it Alexander?"
"Do you have brothers?"
Whack! You hit the tennis ball with all your might and mark a point. Yes! Yes!
"Do you have sisters?"
A quiet walk from the yard to the living room. You don't have sisters.
"That is correct," says the voice, barely containing its elation after several more questions. You are elated too.
They have found you.
Time passes, you don't know how much. Time means little to you in your locked-up universe. The voice comes back. You can sense the hesitation when it says:
"This is something your family wants to know. I don't know how else to put it. Should we discontinue life support?"
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
One of these players is a professional violinist, the other a particle physicist. Can you tell which is which? How can you tell?
Friday, July 2, 2010
People strolling around downtown Mexico City in 1875 might have come across countless “pulquerías” with odd names (pulque is a beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, Wikipedia dixit). But for weirdness of denomination none beat the latest addition to the long list of hangouts for the brothers in pulque: ”El tránsito de Venus.” The name was no allusion to Roman mythology, but the pulque fraternity´s way of celebrating a major scientific event that took place in 1874.
That was the year a Mexican expedition traveled to Japan to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun´s disk. Venus transits occur in pairs, the second transit in a pair coming eight years after the first. Consecutive pairs of transits happen at intervals of more than one hundred years. The transit of 1874 was the first in a pair, the previous one having taken place on June 3, 1769.
Venus transits are interesting because they allow scientists to measure “solar parallax” --a quantity from which the earth-sun distance can be accurately computed. The Mexican team was part of an international effort to determine solar parallax. Enthusiastic about the project, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada chose Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, a geographer from the Colegio de Minería, as head of the expedition. There were, at the time, no secure roads between Mexico City and the Pacific, so Díaz Covarrubias and his team took a train to Veracruz, stopping in Orizaba for several days after learning that an epidemic of black vomit was ravaging the port. From Veracruz they traveled to Havana and Philadelphia, then on to New York, where they inquired about ships leaving San Francisco for Japan. (No, I don´t know why they took such a roundabout route.) They then crossed the United States, arrived in San Francisco, and on October 19, sailed aboard the steamer Vasco de Gama. The Mexican expedition made landfall in Yokohama on November 9, 1874, precisely one month before the transit.
Díaz Covarrubias intended to build two observation stations on Japanese soil, but he needed permits. Unfortunately, they had reached Japan at the time of a national holiday, and Díaz Covarrubias had to wait for several days before he got an answer from the Japanese government. During this time he hired a Chinese carpenter who understood some English to assemble the stations. When the government finally responded, it did so handsomely. They even provided a special telegraph line for the Mexicans to communicate with their American and French counterparts, in Kobe and Nagasaki. The transit was duly observed on December 8-9, 1874.
Díaz Covarrubias and his men sailed home via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez canal, the Mediterranean, and Paris, where they published their results. They then crossed the Atlantic to Veracruz. On November 19, 1875, the train carrying the Mexican expedition rolled into the Buenavista station. The men were given a hero’s welcome, recounted the following day in the daily El siglo diecinueve .
I wonder if the event stirred the patrons of “El tránsito de Venus.” Did they discuss it? Did the pulquería take pride in making the news that day? Did a chorus of pulque-besotted voices toast the men who had sailed around the world to witness the event celebrated in their saloon´s strange name?
Whatever the reaction of the pulquería´s clients, the following year Porfirio Díaz, the new president (and future dictator), signed a decree whereby Mexico was officially given a National Observatory.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Monday, September 21, 2009
Common sense, as discussed here some time ago, is a tool we use in everyday life to sort out our surroundings. But it evolved to solve certain problems arising in the everyday experience of cavemen, or hunter-gatherers. Science takes us far from that realm of experience and so, common sense is not to be trusted if one wants to understand the world scientifically.
Scientists have common sense too, but they learn not to rely too much on it.
Speaking of which I am reminded of another tool for everyday life that cannot be applied unchanged to science --language. Languages, like common sense, developed in the “normal” world of everyday experience. Guided by our limited perception, we invented concepts like “light” and “sound,” and gave them special names We created words for everything we could see, hear, or otherwise perceive. We named what we could imagine. But our imagination rarely creates something new. It only puts together existing conceptual elements, however artfully. Our mental constructs are not unlike Frankenstein’s monster.
In the relatively recent past science and technology have revealed that what we call light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the part that our eyes can see; and what we call sound is only the range of pressure wave frequencies that our ears can detect. We now use these words for light that cannot be seen and sound that cannot be heard. When confronted with new scientific developments, everyday language is forced to either stretch the meaning of extant words, or create new words by agglutination. The term electromagnetic is a case in point. Like the concept it labels, it is the result of putting together “electric” and “magnetic.” Now elektron is Greek for amber. When rubbed with a piece of cloth, amber has the strange property of attracting small objects placed nearby. This property we call electricity. Magnetism is the property of the lodestone, a material also known as magnetite after the ancient Greek city of Magnesia. The word electromagnetic is a Frankenstein monster assembled with parts of other Frankenstein monsters.
There is yet another typical reaction of language to new developments, and that is not to react at all. We have known that the earth spins on its axis these four hundred years. Yet we still say that the sun rises and that the sun sets.
So, not surprisingly, scientific language sometimes clashes with the rules of “good” English (or “good” Spanish). A scientist friend of mine was recently asked by a Spanish teacher to write a short text as an example of scientific language for a book she was writing. My friend complied, and soon got back a “corrected” version (corrupted is more like it) of his text from the teacher. She objected to his use of the phrase “almost constant.” She argued that being constant is not a matter of degree --either you are or you’re not. She is right, of course, but as my friend points out, the meaning of this phrase is self-explanatory, and to say the same thing in pristine Castillian Spanish would require a lengthy circumlocution. Scientists often don’t have time or space for such niceties. (Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that they should not try to write good Spanish or good English whenever possible.)
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I remember once doing a reprehensible thing. I remember doing many reprehensible things, but this one is related to my being a scientist and priding myself, perhaps in a self-congratulatory and delusional way, in being a lover of the “truth,” whatever that may mean.
I was browsing around in the science section of a bookstore in Mexico City. The science section of Mexico City bookstores can be quite bewildering because bookstore owners have a very dim idea of what the term “science” means (witness the book department in any Sanborn’s store, where bona fide science consorts promiscuously with astrology, UFO-abductee accounts, and New Age self-help pap.) Next to some physics textbooks I found a little tome. I don´t remember the title or who the author was. I just remember that it was an enraged accusation of physicists and their strange ideas about relativity. The author, obviously a crank, was not comfortable with the notion that someone might know for a fact something he did not understand. A little training in math and physics shows relativity to be a logical necessity despite its weird predictions (which, by the way, are perfectly established by experiment), but this the author did not know and did not bother to find out. Too much trouble. Instead, he just ranted and raved and argued nonsensically against the special theory of relativity --whithout a single equation.
Now, this is what I did: I pushed the little volume all the way back in its shelf, effectively hiding it from view for the rest of time.
Later it dawned on me what I had really done. I had tried to suppress an idea --an act of censorship. Censorship, of course, is what people do who are not sure they are right. Totalitarian states do it, and the Inquisition did it. It is the weapon of the liar and the usurper, the corrupt and the power-hungry. Censorship, as opposed to argument, is contrary to the search for truth. I don´t mean to say that censorship is unheard-of in science, because it most certainly is not. Scientists are human and subject to human passions. But science has an advantage over political or religious systems of belief, where censorship is common --that its criteria for truth or falseness are clear, and shared by most scientists (the criteria include reproducibility of results and consistency of explanations, among others). The best way to challenge ideas is with ideas. My deed, although inspired by the noblest sentiments (as I’m sure the author of the little book is convinced his own deeds are), was reprehensible and childish.
And then again... The author wasn´t there for me to argue with. With the mass media gone over to the cranks, scientists are reduced to guerrilla tactics. We can´t speak out as they can, and most scientists will not upset their schedules to take part in the war effort. What could I do? I was feeling frustrated. (And please don´t go telling me that maybe so were Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada.)