Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: The Upright Thinkers

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture- the return of physicist and prolific author Dr Leonard Mlodinow. Dr Mlodinow's lecture was a summary of some of the themes of his new book, The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos, sort of "natural history" of humanity's scientific progress.

Dr Mlodinow began the lecture by expounding on the increasingly rapid pace of human development- with the millions of years of evolutionary change leading to millennia, then centuries, then decades, now years of development. Genus Homo made its debut less than four million years ago, and its early breakout development was social intelligence. The social cooperation necessary for communal living spurred brain activity, and this increased mental capacity led to existential questioning.

Around ten thousand years before the present, the Neolithic Revolution occurred. Early farmers were actually less healthy than their foraging counterparts, but farming and its associated sedentism resulted in societies that cared for the sick and aged members more than wandering foragers could. In addition, families lived in close proximity to their dead relatives. As villages, in which dwellers tend to be self-sufficient, grew into cities, a division of labor developed to accommodate the increasing need for specialization. In Mesopotamia, a writing system was developed, which led to the creation of legal codes. A few centuries later, the Greeks were postulating physical laws and engaging in scientific inquiry.

Dr Mlodinow continued with a quick summary of the scientific method- one asks a question, states a hypothesis, then conducts experiments and analyzes the results. In scientific endeavors, failures are more common than successes. Scientific ideas can be wrong, but may lead to other avenues of inquiry- stubbornness and grit are more important than insight.

To illustrate the importance of stubbornness and grit in scientific endeavors, Dr Mlowdinow cited the example of Darwin. The initial question that Darwin asked was, "What should I do with my life?" Darwin failed at medical school, hating the sight of blood. He was a careful observer of nature, though, and published a book on barnacles before he published his most famous work. When he signed up for the voyage of the HMS Beagle, his primary interest was in geology. It was not until many years after he sailed on the Beagle that he published The Origin of Species. At the time Darwin published it, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing a theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Dr Mlodinow then shifted to a discussion of physics, beginning with the statement that the use of the Large Hadron Collider is the best current example of scientific cooperation, the search involving the work of about ten thousand scientists. Nobody had ever "seen" the Higgs boson, but its existence was inferred as an explanation for the Higgs field. The discovery of the Higgs boson meant that three out of the four forces of the Standard Model could be "explained" (gravity still remains a mystery).

The topic then shifted to a brief history of quantum mechanics, beginning with Max Planck's study of black-body radiation. Einstein was able to apply Planck's quantum model to the photo-electric effect. Planck's postulate displaced the not-entirely successful Rayleigh-Jeans Law. Planck was right where James Jeans was wrong- as Planck was supposed to say, "Science advances one funeral at a time."

The "home stretch" of the lecture was an overview of the strange career of Isaac Newton, who dabbled in alchemy and eschatology as well as in legitimate science. Newton's varied career perfectly embodies Thomas Alva Edison's adage, "To have a great idea, have a lot of them." Most ideas are wrong, but there is the occasional great idea.

The lecture was an entertaining history of science and a reminder that mistakes and misconceptions are critical to scientific progress, and that it's often observed that scientists love being wrong. The lecture did suffer somewhat from being overly broad, my favorite lectures tend to "zoom in" on a particular niche subject. The Q&A session afterword was very perfunctory- one bastard did manage to get in a question regarding the single biggest present threat to scientific inquiry and Dr Mlodinow answered, without hesitation, climate change denialism. After this truncated Q&A, Dr Mlodinow had a book signing event. Here's an audio excerpt from the book:

The good doctor is one of the great populizers of science working today, I just think he covered too much territory last night.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Very nice, but we know how this ends.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The thing that strikes me the most about that video every time I watch it is that there are ashtrays on the lecture hall desks.