10 Most Beautiful Experiments

From NYT via Adam Curry. The 10 most elegant experimental demonstrations as voted by physicists. Chronologically …

Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference. (7th)
Galileo’s objects falling with constant gravitational acceleration. (2nd)
Galileo’s balls rolling down inclined planes also under gravity. (8th)
Newton’s decomposition of sunlight with a prism. (4th)
Cavendish’s weighing the Earth / measuring gravitational constant. (6th)
Young’s interference experiment showing light as waves. (5th)
Foucault’s pendulum demonstrating Earths rotation. (10th)
Millikan’s oil-drop measurement of electron charge. (3rd)
Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus by alpha bombardment. (9th)
Jönsson‘s diffraction of electrons behaving as waves. (1st)

Actually, this is just an excuse to post a mention of Jean-Bernard Léon Foucault as distinct from Michel Foucault in response to people constantly asking me “Is that Foucault as in Foucault’s Pendulum ?” Well now we know.

That and the fact that Claus Jönsson remains an obscure individual despite executing what is considered to be the most elegant experimental scientific proof ever, predicted with some certainty by so many more famous theoretical physicists than himself, Einstein included.

A message in that ? Stick to the theory perhaps.

Foucault meets Moby Dick

Almost finished Foucault’s The Order of Things. The powerful chapter on Labour, Life and Language attempts to build fundamental levels of existence based on processes of creation and change (as opposed to being and exchange) in contrast to models based on taxonomies of representation. Labour – Ricardo building fundamental value on Adam Smith, arriving at Marx and Nietzsche, Life – Cuvier building a hierarchy of levels of classification around Lamarck and Jusseau where form is fundamentally subservient to function; Language – Bopp building a process view around Schlegel and Grimm where language is defined by its history of (ongoing) development not frozen in written form, and by the activities, events and processes willed by it’s users, not objects described or represented.

Moby Dick reared his head in the Cuvier / Lamarck analysis, where the anatomical features of cetaceans are related to the fundamental aspects of mammals – something on which Melville dwells at deep and gory length.

Multiple, fundamental “levels” – a common thread in Pirsig, Maslow, Post-Modernism and now specifically Foucault.

A Little More Synchronicity

Bumped into Michael in the Pick – my first night there in weeks, probably his last in months, and when I mentioned I’d been to the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta the week before last, he revealed that his father had developed and exploited a radio / radar based probe for surveying tar sand deposits in Alberta in the 70’s.

Michael also revealed that he’d experienced the Kobe earthquake, been physically knocked about personally and seen quite harrowing scenes of destruction, human as well as property, as fires burned for days whilst he was effectively trapped. Unsurprisingly then, the 4.8 Richter scale earthquake we’d experienced in the UK on Sunday night held more than passing interest for him. In fact Michael had been awoken / disturbed by the quake in the night and, recalling the fear and horror of the previous event, had suffered a traumatic Monday.

Michael also indicated distaste for the Foucault I was reading, and the French Post-Modernists in general. I know what he means about the de-constructionist analytical froth, with little attempt to re-construct anything substantial, but I have to say I think he’s wrong about Foucault. In fact one of the main threads of my thesis is that apparently tangible facts of life are constructed from much less tangible interactions on many levels.

It was Michael who first drew my attention to Jung / Synchronicity / I Ching, the evening we met, when I was reading Melville’s Moby Dick, moments after he’d been recommending to one of his students, standing on the pavement outside the Pick, that he really should read something other than Jane Austen, like Melville for instance ! On another occasion, finding me reading Pirsig (Lila, as opposed to ZAMM), the person he was with that night had been teaching Pirsig to students at Berkley. On the face of it Michael and I now have no evident plans to be in the same place at the same time in future, but synchronicity (or some less mystical quantum non-locality) will no doubt prevail in our decision making once again. Good luck with the move Michael, including re-housing the second largest personal library in Cambridge (after Pepys apparently) – housed in Magdelen, just across the road from ….. the Pick, where else ?

Cronies in Arms

Cronies in Arms. This is a Common Dreams article (via Jorn) by Paul Krugman, describing Enron / Hallburton / Cheney / US-Arms situations in frightening detail. One powerful quote “When one top executive learned of millions in further losses, his e-mailed response summed up the whole strategy: Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the [next quarter]. The strategy worked. Enron collapsed, but not before insiders made off with nearly $1 billion. The sender of that blunt e-mail sold $12 million in stocks just before they became worthless. And now he’s secretary of the Army.”

Fraudodynamics – Coined by Barry Minkov / Minkow (?) the Teenage Fraudster (see earlier blog) – uses similar example around Nick Leeson case – simple rationale leads to major corruption – tacit, non-pre-meditated, emergent, conspiratorial cock-ups, are just as likely as pre-meditated conspiracies. The dividing line is academic as far as the catastrophic conseqences are concerned. Institutionalised in “received rationality”.

Careful with that Razor, Occam !

Mentioned earlier that Foucault & Quine (and many others) consistently warn against the “simplification” implicit in scientific method when arriving at descriptions of the world. Part of my thesis that “received rationality” is unwise in complex systems, and I’ve already used the thought of “Avoiding cutting one’s own throat with Occam’s Razor” in my original “manifesto“. Found an interesting aphorism from Ted Samsel, in a Google thread started by Jorn called “Two thoughts on e-life” namely “ObConcept : Occam’s Razor meets the Procrustean Bed” (apparently the Athenian tyrant Procrustes had a bed of fixed length into which he “trimmed” miscreants to fit – one size fits all idea.)