Mini Stories from Science

108. A note on teleology – you were born to read this.

108. A note on teleology – you were born to read this.

Johannes Kepler was a great scientist who fathomed the laws of planetary motion. Yet even he was susceptible to the sort of inverse logic that still traps many people today. It is called teleology - explanation by reference to some purpose, end, goal, or function....

107. Terrorism and the refugee crisis

107. Terrorism and the refugee crisis

The journal Nature has been taking a strong interest in terrorism and the refugee crisis, even publishing an article of mine on the latter (see http://lenfisherscience.com/avoid-major-disasters-by-welcoming-minor-change/). As a leading scientific journal, Nature has...

106. Could consciousness be thought of as a state of matter?

106. Could consciousness be thought of as a state of matter?

Can consciousness be thought of as a state of matter? According to physicist Max Tegmark from MIT (see https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/why-physicists-are-saying-consciousness-is-a-state-of-matter-like-a-solid-a-liquid-or-a-gas-5e7ed624986d), thinking about...

105. What does it feel like to be a scientist?

105. What does it feel like to be a scientist?

Some late night reflections on what it feels like to be a scientist, broadcast on ABC Radio National in Australia on September 13th, and now available as a podcast at...

104. Of NASA, knee surgery, and the science of self-repair

In the days when I was an active experimental scientist, one of my areas of interest was in how things stick together – living cells, mineral particles, oil drops, etc. Another of my interests was distance running. Not that I was much good at it, but I did keep on...

103. Visual multiplication

103. Visual multiplication

The great English mathematician G.H. Hardy, speaking of his Indian protégé Ramanujan (see post 25) once quoted to his colleague Littlewood that “every integer was his [Ramanujan’s] personal friend”. “I like that,” said Littlewood “I wonder who said it?” “You did,”...

102. How Robert Boyle and I became chemists.

102. How Robert Boyle and I became chemists.

Adapted from Chapter 5 of "Weighing the Soul" When I am introduced to strangers as a “chemist”, most of them conclude either that I dispense prescriptions or that I spend my time in a smelly laboratory mixing “chemicals” together to see what will happen. If I were an...

101. Tacit knowledge and the replication of results.

101. Tacit knowledge and the replication of results.

One thing that seldom gets talked about in the world of science is the notion of tacit knowledge – that is, know-how that is only, and sometimes can only, be passed on through direct experience. A recent example was described in the journal Nature (Vol. 514, pp. 139 –...

100. Of cricket balls and icebergs

100. Of cricket balls and icebergs

For my 100th post (how time flies when you are having fun!) here is another example of lateral connections. This one started when Matteo Rini, Editor of the American Physics Society’s Tip Sheet, told me about some experiments* where researchers had dropped ice-coated...

99. Sex on the motorway

99. Sex on the motorway

When I first started on my quest to make science accessible by showing how scientists think about the day-to-day things that interest us all, my first thought was to do the science of food and cooking, about which I knew a little bit. But lots of other people were...

98. Necessary Mysteries

The remarkable experimental discovery that (in the quantum world at least) “future events can decide what happened in the past” (http://www.digitaljournal.com/science/experiment-shows-future-events-decide-what-happens-in-the-past/article/434829) has stimulated me to...

97. Archimedes meets the synchrotron

97. Archimedes meets the synchrotron

With the news that synchrotron X-radiation is being used to shed light on fading Modernist paintings (http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2015/jul/08/x-ray-analysis-sheds-light-on-fading-modernist-paintings#.VZ-GYYqngQY.twitter), it occurs to me that my followers...

96. . Is there a scientific method? Yes: you use it every day.

96. . Is there a scientific method? Yes: you use it every day.

In Posts 18 and 19 I argued that was NO single scientific method, because scientists use many different methods in their attempts to understand how the world works, as I hope this series of posts has shown. Here, though, I am going to argue YES, because all of science...

95. On silver ants, astronauts and the corner cube reflector

95. On silver ants, astronauts and the corner cube reflector

A recent story on Saharan silver ants Cataglyphis bombycina (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27748-silver-coat-lets-saharan-ants-withstand-scorching-desert-heat.html#.VZPPM6bDs7A) has set me wondering on the uses of geometry in nature. The silver appearance of...

94. Woodquakes and earthquakes

94. Woodquakes and earthquakes

Two upcoming papers in Physical Review Letters shed a light on the way that scientists can use analogies to understand fundamental physical processes. Some analogies can be just plain barmy, as with Newton’s analogy between the number of notes in a musical scale and...

93. Kurt Gödel and the hole in the U.S. constitution

93. Kurt Gödel and the hole in the U.S. constitution

The Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel upset the world of mathematics, and came close to upsetting the world of U.S. politics. In mathematics, he took the final step in a long line of upsetters of apple carts that stretched right back to Euclid, who came up with the...

92. The art and science of dunking

92. The art and science of dunking

June 5th On this National Donut Day in the U.S., here is the first chapter of my prize-winning "How To Dunk a Doughnut": an illustration of how scientists think about the problems of everyday life. One of the main problems that scientists have in sharing their picture...

91. Our beautiful minds

91. Our beautiful minds

Scientists at the University of Virginia have found a previously unsuspected network of lymphatic vessels connecting the brain directly to the immune system (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14432.html). Why is this so important? For a...

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