My subjective take on issues in and around science. Profiles of interesting scientists, etc. Also, juicy videos of nature, physics, and chemistry, etc.

“[We] cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time. ” Charles Fort

Charles Fort was an extraordinary thinker and a witty if challenging writer. Born into the heart of the steam-driven industrial revolution, He was nonplussed to learn about the Aeolipile, an ancient Roman steam engine. It was a very simple device and researchers aren’t certain if it was an entertaining party trick or had some small practical use. We do know that its impact on this historical period is zero. It didn’t capture the imagination of the time or generate new ideas and new technologies. It was intellectually inert.

What then makes a technological breakthrough roar into life seemingly from nowhere? Why do paradigm shifts sometimes appear startlingly fast?

“Steam engine time” may sound too techno-mystical to be an idea of practical use but I think the meaning is straightforward. Steam engine time (or gunpowder time or antibiotic time) is an EMERGENT effect of the laying down sufficient essential substrate to make the idea fertile. That substrate collects slowly and incrementally. It consists of underlying 1. technological and 2. intellectual readiness.

  1. The sort of hardware needed to express the idea physically must be “off the shelf” accessible. Not like Superstore accessible but in the general world of the moment and probably serving completely unrelated purposes at present. If you have to invent a bunch of other things to compile and test your idea, it isn’t time yet.
  2. There must be a sort of slowly heating or charging excitement growing in the community of innovators and thinkers. They may keep their thoughts to themselves but related ideas are percolating and making connections throughout the surrounding world. The questions are crystallizing and there is a growing sense of urgency. Competition plays a part too. Pride and fear add to the pressure. This process speeds up when more people are engaging with the issue.

If you’ve read my stuff on Darwin and Wallace you know of their representative competition but the IDEA of evolution was on a low boil everywhere in their cultural moment. The substrate was laid and the moment was fertile. Their theories (and others) could only emerge in a powerful way that shaped the future from this state of readiness. A breakthrough theory coming before the substrate is ripe and ready is roundly ignored.

Feuding Dutchmen, and Telescope Time

With the Renaissance came a new freedom of thought and hunger for knowledge. Ptolemaic knowledge of astronomy was rediscovered and published along with mythology, astrology, and philosophy. Our place in the universe was one of the ideas beginning to bubble in many minds. Technology and craftsmanship rose from the old, rediscovered knowledge and quickly had a practical impact. It was inevitable that as glassmaking and lens-grinding techniques improved in the late 1500s, someone would hold up two lenses and observe what they could do.

The first patent application for a telescope came from Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey. In 1608, Lippershey claimed he’d invented a device that could magnify objects three times. His telescope had a concave eyepiece aligned with an objective convex lens. Another eyeglass maker, Zacharias Jansen, claimed Lippershey had stolen the idea from him. Jansen and Lippershey lived in the same town and both worked on making optical instruments.

We have no evidence that Lippershey did not develop his telescope independently therefore, he gets the credit for the telescope, because of the patent application, while Jansen is credited with inventing the compound microscope. Both appear somehow to have been a part of the development of both instruments.

This is an extraordinary impact on science and the future from one little Dutch town and two very competitive residents. Our exploration of the very big and far and the very small and close comes to us courtesy of this jealous, grumpy lens grinding soap opera. Continue reading


Euler’s disk, (pronounced ‘Oiler’) which can spin for an absurdly long time, and seemingly defy gravity by increasing its axial precession as it decreases its azimuthal rotation. It appears to break physical laws (it doesn’t) but it truly shatters expectations.



The Signal to Noise Ratio

  1. Formal: the ratio of the strength of an electrical or other signal carrying information, to that of interference, generally expressed in decibels.
  2. Informal: a measure of how much useful information there is in a system, such as the Internet, as a proportion of the entire contents.

Signal is meaning detected against a background of meaninglessness, or Noise. This is something you and I never stop doing. You are doing it to read this on the screen and doing it again more subtly to decide whether I’m full of crap, then more subtly still, to decide if you care one way or the other. Our need to discern is endless. An animal using stealth or mimicry to catch prey or to escape becoming prey is imitating noise. Detecting signal can easily be a matter of life and death. Continue reading


July 1st is 161 years since Darwin’s “Natural Selection” theory was accepted by the Linnean society of scientists as the correct explanation and Evolution became Darwinian Evolution.
I find most people think Darwin was a lovely and rather enlightened man, and that his theory rose to prominence on merit alone.

Those people can’t complete a dichotomous key test between asses and elbows, scientifically speaking. If you’ve never read my stuff before, you might worry I’m a closet creationist. Nope.

Part 1.

The Descent of Darwin: Part 1 – Survival of the Best Connected

Part 2.

The descent of Darwin: Part 2 The fall of Wallace, Lamarck and complexity

Part 3.

The descent of Darwin: Part 3 – Stretched Thin

Part 4.

The descent of Darwin: Part 4 – Social Darwinism





Reductionism is a cultural behavior required of scientists. If you wander too far from reductionism you will be ostracized. Reductionism denies that anything is greater than the sum of its parts. Things may appear to be complex but when looked at correctly they are “Merely” so much of this and that. It doesn’t account for what is happening with these “merely bits” that generated complexity.

Religion pushed science into this reflexive position. Religion is like rising floodwaters always seeking the weak point in Science’s levee of empiricism. Religion generated this dogmatic defense within science that would have been unnecessary without the influence. One can sympathize with the need to keep theology out, but the results are like a peaceful culture becoming militaristic in its own defense and losing something important.

Reductionism in religion is the name of the game, it is the machine operating as intended. “It is God’s will.” Religion takes a world of complexity and mystery and sorts these according to its filing system, placing each in an “orthodox box”. If this boiling down mechanism wasn’t present in church doctrine the religion would be saying, in effect: “Here is the eternal, unchanging truth unless someone has a better idea, one that seems to fit the facts better”. In other words, science. When the Pope weighs in on something heavy in his official capacity, clarifying it in extra-bold red underlined words for all time he is speaking “Ex Cathedra“, or infallibly. Use of the Ex Cathedra voice in science is plainly antithetical to the mission.* In war, the difference in weaponry evens out into a common approach. Both settle for example on bows and arrows or spears and clubs, otherwise it isn’t a battle, but a rout for one side. Science fought religion’s reductionism by developing its own parallel. The parallel had to be hard, cold and unflinching. It used the serious daddy voice. It defined and circumscribed scientific culture to the world at large with unambiguous borders. It is understandable and regrettable.

But reductionism in science is the mirror of doctrinal certainty. It is a bulwark against invasion but it makes us dumber.

Reductionism confidently declares our current level of partial understanding as the end zone of reality. Since its origin, every scientific discipline has crawled painfully over lots and lots of wrong to find little bits of right. At every point down this ever changing track the current state of knowledge determined where “Nonsense” began. It’s reminiscent of “Aren’t you lucky you were born a member of the one true church?”. Science history is full of people who found treasure where the experts said there was only nonsense. It doesn’t mean nonsense is where to look, just that it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Things that are “Unscientific” are things science doesn’t want to talk about. Often but not always, for legitimate reasons. Some exiled things will likely become accepted scientific facts someday. It would be much more true to scientific principles to refuse to answer questions from outside the data or at least give an unambiguous disclaimer that reporting the facts of scientific research is like reporting what you see looking out the window of a train, there is the truth and there is the truth a mile further along the track, both are true to their moment: Neither describes with certainty what we will see ahead. The facts of science have transformed the world. But to the long view they are like the rocks dug out of the tunnel as we pass through, and the real riches of scientific research are the emerging questions that power our forward journey.

It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explains not, then it says there is nothing to explain.

– Bram Stoker, Dracula

Reductionism is like a kid who argues that whatever does not fit into his toy box is not a toy.

– Nancy Pearcey


>* except for “flat-earthers” and their ilk, fuck them and the stupid horse they rode in on.


I could happily sit on the floor playing with magnets for a couple of hours. I have never outgrown the delight of feeling invisible forces at work, all the more because magnets almost seem to possess some agency and a playful nature. Like baby monkeys, they snatch things that get too close and the next minute freak out and run away. If you look back a couple of posts at the one called ‘magnets sorting themselves out’ they move like highly trained but bumbling soldiers racing to stand at attention, and in formation. They show what feels like certainty about their destination and they seem to clamber over each other to get there.

The thing about invisible forces is how difficult it is to properly imagine what is taking place. If we never saw air moving through smoke or mist, the wind would be a similar mystery to our imagination. 

The only way to see the shape and force of a magnetic field is similar to seeing the wind act on smoke. We can’t see the force in a pure, abstract way… we need to see it acting upon something. We need a material the magnet will engage with, but not a large, lumpy object like another magnet. We need something like a cloud, made of tiny, reactive particles.  To the right is a familiar image of light iron filings scattered like sand on paper lying atop a horseshoe magnet. A little gentle tapping on the paper and they line up cleanly along the magnetic field lines. If you want a better look, it’s linked to a full-size version.

This is a rather static vision of the effect though. Below is a slightly more dynamic way to see it. Rather than paper, it’s a clear acrylic box with a liquid suspension of iron filings.

It’s better, we can even get a little taste of the three dimensionalities of the effect.  Remember though, we never see a magnetic field acting in a vacuum. Iron filings don’t show the truth of magnetic fields, they show that truth as applied to iron filings.


Ferrofluid shows that truth acting on a rather dense liquid. There’s an earlier post on the composition and history of Ferrofluid. Take a look if you need a touch more foundation. Basically, it’s a colloidal suspension of magnetic nanoparticles. Ferrofluid breaks the “fourth wall” of being demurely flat and passive. It’s often in a bowl or other container, open and available to us. The very different physics of a liquid and a powder are instantly apparent. Ferrofluid makes one think of an alien life form or some stylish evil entity. It undulates, it climbs up and down surfaces like sentient oil. It even leaps. It appears to have moods, and rather peculiar ones.

While this view of magnetic fields is not truer than the behavior of iron filings, it’s more dynamic and thrilling. It’s truer perhaps in that way. From the point of view of magnetic energy, peaks and valleys are energetically favorable. In the corrugated configuration, the magnetic field is concentrated in the peaks; since the fluid is more easily magnetized than the air, this lowers the magnetic energy. In consequence, the spikes of fluid ride the field lines out into space until there is a balance of the forces involved.

At the same time, the formation of peaks and valleys is resisted by gravity and surface tension. It requires energy both to move fluid out of the valleys and up into the spikes and to increase the surface area of the fluid. In summary, the formation of the corrugations increases the surface free energy and the gravitational energy of the liquid but reduces the magnetic energy.

Just for fun, ferrofluid mixed with glow-stick liquid:

And finally, with some awesome coloration in the mix.