This is a subject I have been watching from a safe distance for well over half a century, when I first read Martin Gardner’s
Fads and Fallacies
in the Name of Science (Few books have influenced me more than this one).
I met J. Allen Hynek in my last year of high school, 1967-68, when I was a student in the
(Still around although in a different
format) at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. This program was
organized and run by Hynek. Hynek was a pleasant and interesting
speaker, and a good teacher, but he never spoke to us kids about UFOs.
I was reminded tonight of the Gaia hypothesis. It was quite a thing in the 1970s.
The Gaia hypothesis, named after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, posits that Earth and its biological systems behave
as a huge single entity. This entity has closely controlled self-regulatory negative feedback loops that keep the conditions
on the planet within boundaries that are favorable to life. Introduced in the early 1970s, the idea was conceived by chemist
and inventor James E. Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis.
As someone who started computing with log tables and slide rules, the first question I ask is
how many significant digits do the other variables in your calculation have? The smallest such number tells you how
many digits of pi you need. With electronic devices there is no harm in using more in your calculation, as many as
your device has, but do not let that give you a false idea of the precision of your result.
I learned about significant figures in my high school chemistry in 1967-68. (Thank you, Mr. Wheeler!).
Use of appropriate significant figures, also from a chemistry
class, clearly explains the concept and its use in practice.
I only first saw Star Trek (TOS) after high school, in reruns. Thanks to that chemistry class I gag every
time I hear Mr. Spock reporting some calculation to an absurd number of decimal places. His input data could
not possibly be that precise!
This has happened before in astronomy. After both Neptune and Pluto were discovered, astronomers looked at old records and found that their
predecessors had seen both bodies, but had not realized they were significant. In the case of Neptune one of those predecessors was
Yesterday I got an email from Cosmoquest about a science
press conference (“presser”) where a new discovery would be announced. With all the new distance-based
communication technology anybody could watch, rather than just those in a select room, however large. The
event was put on by the Royal Astronomical Society today. I watched it on the
Cosmoquest Twitch TV channel. I had never heard of Twitch TV before.
An international team of astronomers, led by Professor
Jane Greaves of Cardiff University,
today announced the discovery of a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is
only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.
The discovery was made by spectroscopy using two different radio telescopes. The significance of this is that the production of phospine
by purely chemical processes is very unlikely in the atmosphere of Venus. The team looked at every possible chemical reaction they
could think up, and failed to find any that could come close to producing the observed amount of phospine.