A Different Kind of Science

Not everybody gets to do tightly controlled experiments in the lab. It’s still science, though (provided you do it right). Can you apply it to the study of history? Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson think you can.

Natural experiments: Working in the history lab

In Snow’s case the difficulty was not that manipulative controlled experiments were impossible or illegal, but that they were immoral. In other sciences, manipulative controlled experiments are impossible, so, for example, astronomy, evolutionary biology, epidemiology and historical geology all use natural experiments. If you are studying planets, volcanoes or glaciers, you cannot manipulate them. The same goes for dinosaurs or other things that existed or happened in the past, so manipulative experiments are ruled out in such historical sciences as palaeontology, too. In social sciences such as economics, political science and sociology, manipulative, controlled experiments are ruled out on all three grounds – they are either impossible, or they are immoral or illegal. Investigators have no choice but to test hypotheses using naturally occurring experiment-like variations.

Yet there is one field where natural experiments could be used but seldom are: most historians resist them. That is odd because, after all, many of the sciences that use natural experiments are deeply historical.

The Art of the Steal

Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief

The most ingenious one they’ve caught, anyway.

Blanchard wasn’t listening. He was noting the motion sensors in the corner, the type of screws on the case, the large windows nearby. To hear Blanchard tell it, he has a savantlike ability to assess security flaws, like a criminal Rain Man who involuntarily sees risk probabilities at every turn. And the numbers came up good for the star. Blanchard knew he couldn’t fence the piece, which he did hear the guide say was worth $2 million. Still, he found the thing mesmerizing and the challenge irresistible.

He began to work immediately, videotaping every detail of the star’s chamber. (He even coyly shot the “No Cameras” sign near the jewel case.) He surreptitiously used a key to loosen the screws when the staff moved on to the next room, unlocked the windows, and determined that the motion sensors would allow him to move — albeit very slowly — inside the castle. He stopped at the souvenir shop and bought a replica of the Sisi Star to get a feel for its size. He also noted the armed guards stationed at every entrance and patrolling the halls.

But the roof was unguarded, and it so happened that one of the skills Blanchard had picked up in his already long criminal career was skydiving. He had also recently befriended a German pilot who was game for a mercenary sortie and would help Blanchard procure a parachute. Just one night after his visit to the star, Blanchard was making his descent to the roof.

Brrrrrromine, et al

Modeling Ultracold Chemistry

Atomic physicists have steadily improved their ability to cool atoms to temperatures where quantum effects reign, and in the past decade they have also trapped loosely bound pairs of atoms. But only in 2008 did they produce large numbers of ultracold pairs that were bound strongly enough to properly be called molecules. Each of these molecules is in its lowest possible state of vibration and rotation, and their overall motion corresponds to temperatures under a millionth of a degree above absolute zero. Bose-Einstein condensation of ultracold atoms 14 years ago spawned a continuing flurry of physics experiments and garnered a Nobel Prize, but researchers expect even richer quantum behavior from ultracold molecules. Understanding how ultracold molecules interact is critical to the experiments.

Where is the Table?

Backreaction: Experiments with GPS

The biggest mystery in the universe is clearly the male brain. What happens if you leave my husband alone with a GPS receiver? He’ll spend several hours measuring the position of a table. For what I’m concerned the table is on the patio. Besides this, I’m every product developers nightmare since instead of reading manuals or tutorials I randomly click or push buttons till I’ve figured out what they’re good for. That’s a good procedure to find out every single way to crash the system, but usually not particularly efficient to actually use the device or software. Stefan instead goes and reads the manual!

GPS receivers are the ultimate guy toy, since it’s an electronic gadget which pretty much guarantees you’ll never have to stop to ask for directions.

Wrong Metric, Sir

SciGuy: What is more important: Energy or healthcare?

What is clear is that Americans and American companies value health care over energy by at least a factor of five, and perhaps much more.

That’s pretty incredible considering that, in the modern world, energy is nearly as essential as good health care, and that substantial energy research is considered a requisite to meet future needs.

Or so I would argue.

I think SciGuy makes a mistake her in equating dollars spent with importance. I think one has to consider phase space and pregnant women.

There’s an adage in research that it takes one woman nine months to produce a baby. If one gathers nine women, they will not be able to produce a baby in one month. Research takes time, and there is a point at which adding more money to the problem does not yield improved results — you only benefit if there are new lines of research to be pursued, i.e. the “phase space” of the problem can’t be restricting you. Medical research has lots of problems that can be investigated, and a large number of drugs that can be researched, as well as improvements in diagnostic equipment.

Crap You Won't Believe

Manure Raises New Stink

Dairy farmer has a pool of manure in his back yard, and methane bubbles are forming.

Mr. Goltstein asked state regulators to let him pop the bubbles. He said he and his 19-year-old son would slice them open with a knife from a paddleboat.

Bruce Palin, assistant commissioner for the office of land quality at the state environmental agency, said officials were considering the idea. But, he added, “not knowing how much volume of gas is there and how much pressure is on it, we’re concerned with just cutting a hole.”

Last year, a hog farmer in Hayfield, Minn., was launched 40 feet into the air in an explosion caused by methane gas from a manure pit on his farm. He sustained burns and singed hair.

Mr. Goltstein’s attorney, Glenn D. Bowman, acknowledged that the potential existed for an explosion: “We’re aware of that sort of common physics issue,” he said.

Yes, exploding shitbubbles apparently fall under the category of common physics issues.