Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Holding theorems in their hands": The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

"For Ms. Wertheim...the project embodies the 'beauty and creativity that comes out of scientific thinking,' what she refers to as 'conceptual enchantment.' As it turns out, the gorgeously crenellated, warped and undulating corals, anemones, kelps, sponges, nudibranchs, flatworms and slugs that live in the reef have what are known as hyperbolic geometric structures: shapes that mathematicians, until recently, thought did not exist outside of the human imagination ... It wasn’t until 1997 that Daina Taimina, a mathematics researcher at Cornell who had learned to crochet as a child in Latvia, realized that by continually adding stitches in a precise repeating pattern she could create three-dimensional models of hyperbolic geometry. For the first time mathematicians could, as Ms. Wertheim said, 'hold the theorems in their hands'."

-- NY Times: Want to Save a Coral Reef? Bring Along Your Crochet Needles (Um, that would be crochet hooks and knitting needles.)

"Every person who takes up this craft creates new species of crochet organisms and we have come to see the project as a collective experiment in textile-based evolution. Just as all living creatures result from variations in an underlying DNA code, so the species in these handi-crafted reefs arise from deviations in a single simple algorithm. Slight variations in the kind of yarn, changes in the rate of increasing stitches, even shifts in crochet tension make significant differences to the morphology of the finished form ... Ways of constructing once perceived as 'merely' women’s craft, and dismissed from the cannon of scientific practice, now emerge as revelatory forms of a more complex, embodied way of thinking about the world both mathematically and physically."

-- The Crochet Coral Reef At The Chicago Cultural Center

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Sunday, December 2, 2007


"The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart." - Richard Adams

Update 05.12.07:Should have actually looked this up before posting. In the comments, Jean-Louis attributes the quote to Walter Lippman which makes much more sense but, sadly, isn't quite as interesting.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

No uncertain terms. All uncertain terms.

Clive Thompson - Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

"Turns out, the real culture war in science isn't about science at all — it's about language. And to fight this war, we need to change the way we talk about scientific knowledge ... It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle — in no uncertain terms."

In this short article, Thompson talks about how the deliberately nuanced and tentative language of science is exploited by creationists and others who take advantage of the vernacular sense of theory, as in "Oh, so that's just your theory, not a fact!" Although he seems to have little faith in the public, he recognises connections between language and power, and in the process touches on important critiques of hyper-relativist social constructionism, as well as much older questions about truth, including the possibility of codifying it. I've heard it explained that people become desperate for certainty in times of uncertainty. And as much as I disagree with creationists, I can't help but think Thompson's plan would come back to seriously bite us on the ass.

Update 16.11.07 - In the comments Nick left a link to a Guardian story about Steve Fuller, who I think is a super interesting sociologist. Check out his take on ID, and the explicit attention given to authority and power.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Scientific ethics

The British government's chief scientific advisor has set out a universal ethical code for scientists.

1) Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
2) Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
3) Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
4) Ensure that research is justified and lawful
5) Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
6) Discuss issues science raises for society
7) Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

Professor Sir David King: "It's important to look at the relationship between science and the public. If we have a breakthrough, and society is not accepting of that, then we have a problem; so what we need is for scientists to accept the code and follow it [...] We believe if every scientist followed the code, we would improve the quality of science and remove many of the concerns society has about research."

Lib Dem science spokesman Dr Evan Harris: "The seven points in this code are part of what separates researchers from charlatans, medicine from quackery and science from supposition."

So. It seems that scientists and policy makers are still trying to figure out what to do about fiascos like The Fall of Hwang, even if he was on to something useful.

Personally, I struggle to see how scientific authority is under serious threat from lay people - it's still scientists telling the rest of us what they should do and not the other way around - but I appreciate how a manoeuvre like this opens up the opportunity to debate what science is, and should be.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Observation # 457

It is only with artists that I become a scientist.

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