The Giant’s Shoulders #11

Just as Rome wasn’t build in a single day, science progresses slowly but strongly as well, constantly searching for, suggesting or rejecting new fundamental theory, and ‘padding’ these with additional findings. Shoulder-padding that is, for we all stand on the shoulders, the strong fundaments of our predecessors. Why do I use such Big Words? Because I am very excited to announce that today I’m hosting the new edition of ‘The Giant’s Shoulders’, here on Curving Normality. Giant’s Shoulders is a monthly science blogging event, in which authors are invited to submit posts on “classic” scientific papers.

John Dennehy discusses the first classic of this issue, and interestingly his discussion relates to what we’re all doing here: blogging. Or rather, finding a way to bring science to a larger audience. In “This Week’s Citation Classic: What Is Life?”, posted at The Evilutionary Biologist, Schrödingers book on mind and matter ‘What Is Life’ is discussed. “Indeed biologists at the time attacked it on account of its naivete and extreme reductionism. The book’s overriding contention was that all of biology could be reduced into chemical and physical laws, a statement that most biologist today will agree with” Despite its focus on the layperson, it had many scientist to cross the disciplinary boundaries.

It’s always fascinating to try out how old our current knowledge actually is, which is exactly what gg did regarding the structure of the nuclear atom. He traced it back to (at least) 1844 in his post Mr. Faraday goes wild ? with atomic speculation! (1844) posted at Skulls in the Stars. “A speculation touching electric conduction and the nature of matter.  Faraday, already a distinguished and even famous scientist, shared some thoughts about the nature of atomic structure, based on the paucity of knowledge that was available at the time.  His observations, though still off the mark according to current understanding, were remarkably forward thinking.” gg evaluates the suggestions made by Faraday, and his conclusion also relates to the value of our beloved Giant’s Shoulders: “In short, hypothesis and speculation are natural parts of the scientific process, and even necessary ones.  An idea which gets people to think about a physical problem in a new and different way can be a stepping stone to a new discovery, even if the idea turns out in the end to be inaccurate”

But it was not only Faraday ‘going wild’, it was gg as well, for he send in another blog article: Who first suggested the nuclear atom?, again posted at Skulls in the Stars. The question here actually is that of on whose shoulders tend to stand: the theorist, or the one who provided the empirical test: “Perrin first proposed the nucleo-planetary model, but never pursued the idea beyond some basic speculations.  Rutherford is rightly given most of the credit for the development of the model, as he supervised the experiments which led to its verification and worked out the rigorous theory behind it”

M P Gururajan presents an article on surface tension, in which he also traces the development of a specific model, the Potts model, for modeling surface tensions: Classics in Materials Science: Potts model and its relevance to simulation of microstructures posted at Materialia Indica. “Like soap bubble solution is is easy to use and provides fundamental insights into surface tension phenomena; but also like soap bubble solution, it can lead to a sticky mess.”

On the importance of the (political) context in which science is ‘made’ Eric Michael Johnson argues “It took the threat of nuclear annihilation between the two greatest powers of the 20th century to solve one of the most profound scientific controversies of the 1800s” He presents an article on “the hypothesis of coral reef formation first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1837″:
Rivalry Among The Reefs found at The Primate Diaries. He concludes: “Ironic though it may be, it took a bitter rivalry between nations to find a solution to the rivalry between scientists from centuries past”.

Finally, do we use all that knowledge brought to us by these Giant’s of science in daily life? The most recent classic is discussed by Dave Munger, who present an article on how people decide: “Many studies have addressed how people make important decisions like which college to attend, but one of the classics was conducted way back in the 1980s, by a team led by Richard Nisbett”. His post Do we reason with statistics? If so, when, and why? is to be found at Cognitive Daily. He concludes: “Overall, the researchers found that a predisposition to look at data statistically (either because of hint given by the experimenters, the nature of the data, or the nature of the individual’s experience) led to more statistical reasoning.” and adds a nice political twist to it at the very end.

Ok, that’s it for this edition. Next one will be up on June 16th, at the appropriately titled The Secret of Newton”.