Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue …

The map that changed the world

The Waldseemuller map was – and still is – an astonishing sight to behold. Drawn 15 years after Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, and measuring a remarkable 8ft wide by 4½ft high, it introduced Europeans to a fundamentally new understanding of the make-up of the earth.

The map represented a remarkable number of historical firsts. In addition to giving America its name, it was also the first map to portray the New World as a separate continent – even though Columbus, Vespucci, and other early explorers would all insist until their dying day that they had reached the far-eastern limits of Asia.

The map was the first to suggest the existence of what explorer Ferdinand Magellan would later call the Pacific Ocean, a mysterious decision, in that Europeans, according to the standard history of New World discovery, aren’t supposed to have learned about the Pacific until several years later.

Young Science

One thing I noted last summer when the STS-124 shuttle astronauts visited was that the kids asked some great questions. And that’s the theme of a new Boing-Boing column:

Submit your toddler’s science questions!

The child does not have to be your own. Questions do not have to be cute or “Kids Say the Darndest Things-ish” in any way. They do not even have to be current. (Baby boomers, got a query that’s been nagging at you since 1975? I don’t care if the toddler is now in their 30s, send the question!) All I’m looking for are things you can’t answer off the top of your head and don’t feel like researching yourself. Easy stuff!

Do turtles have eyelashes?

Communication Breakdown

Chad was recently at the Perimeter Institute’s Quantum to Cosmos Festival, on a panel discussion called Communicating Science in the 21st Century. (Direct link to the video is here). It’s a pretty good discussion, I think, but a few things are left open — discussions have their way of drifting off in a particular direction, and going back to cover a point isn’t always possible, especially with a moderator and a time constraint.

Very early on, there’s a general point about traditional journalism and the various requirements of it, including being balanced. Later on, Ivan Semeniuk goes into some detail about this, in the context of reporting vs. getting involved in a story — reporting science is not the same thing as promoting science. And there’s something to that, but I think a larger point was missed. A lot of the so-called controversy that is reported in various stories is not scientific in origin. I think “I’m only reporting the story” and “I have to be balanced” is a bit of a dodge, because if one is truly reporting the science, one often finds that there is no balance in what the science says — it’s very one-sided, and creating the illusion that this isn’t the case is not a responsible act. And yes, this falls under the rants-about-science-journalism umbrella that Chad mentions, early in the video.

The Large Hadron Collider was mentioned as one of the big stories of the past year, boding well for the public’s interest in science; even though the topic of “the LHC will kill us all” was discussed, it’s not clear how much that type of story is represented in the popularity numbers, but those stories were out there. Giving equal representation to Chicken-Littles grossly distorts the merit of their objections.

At least the LHC stories were about science, even if it’s bad science. Other stories where equal time is given are not. Stories involving creationism or intelligent design vs evolution, for example, are stories about ideology masquerading as science. Here the desire to provide both perspectives can be even more damaging, because it presents the illusion that this is a scientific conflict, rather than the truth that this is a political battle, with precious little actual science being presented by the cdesign proponentsists. One finds similarities with the “controversies” over global warming and vaccinations, where the detractors use rhetoric and distortion, but not a whole lot of legitimate science, and make their case in the popular press instead of in the science journals. Science is not a democracy, and equal time is not a right guaranteed to any particular proposition — scientific ideas are accepted because of merit, demonstrated by experiment. Not only is it OK to point this out, it’s something that should be demanded to consider a science story to be responsible journalism.

They Need to Fire the Maid

Storage Ring Dust-Up

High-energy physicists have finally pinpointed their dust problem. Inside multi-million dollar storage rings, high-speed trains of electrons are often derailed by micron-sized specks of dust. Now a team has shown that dust grains arise from sparks inside a Japanese storage ring, as they report in an upcoming paper in Physical Review Special Topics–Accelerators and Beams (PRST-AB), a free, online journal. The team also serendipitously caught on video one of the tiny grains being swept along in the electron beam–the particle physics equivalent of a criminal caught by a security camera. The feat opens the possibility for further characterization of the dust.

Grad School is like a Startup Company

Paul Graham: What Startups are Really Like

The cofounder is your thesis advisor. There are many points with a pretty decent correlation to life in grad school, at least for physics, and my datum.

I’ve been surprised again and again by just how much more important persistence is than raw intelligence.

Not that physics grad school is populated with dummies or anything, but persistence is mandatory.

I’m continually surprised by how long everything can take. Assuming your product doesn’t experience the explosive growth that very few products do, everything from development to dealmaking (especially dealmaking) seems to take 2-3x longer than I always imagine.

Ask a grad student how long until the get their degree, and you’ll probably get an answer like, “I just need to get this one bit of apparatus to work, get a little data, and then it’s thesis-writing time. I’ll be done in a year.” A year later, you will probably get the same response.

When I was in school, we filed a plan of what coursework we would be doing for our degree, which was reviewed and approved by your thesis committee. It had to include a certain number of research credits, which basically amounted to one year of full-time research. A friend of mine asked, “What happens if I finish sooner than that?” which elicited a round of laughter from his advisors. “We’ll deal with that if it happens.” He had done two years of classes at that point, and was there for 5 more years.

Tips on Winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

Or so it would seem

Blog: how to write badly well

For instance, in Skip blithely between tenses

I sit at my desk with my head in my hands and sighed. It is only three days until the deadline, I think, and I’m going to have had to finished everything before then. If only I have finish this now, I thought and lean back on my chair. Just then, the phone has rung. I am answering it.
‘Hello?’ I am going to have said. It is my boss; he was angry, but not as angry as I remember him being when I am handing in the work late, four days from now.

‘Is this work going to have been finished when it is currently the deadline which, at present, is in the future?’ he demanded. ‘I am planning to have been waiting for it, as I presently am.’

Bad writing. Leonard Pinth-Garnell would approve, I’m sure.

And no forgetting a link to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest itself