In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.
This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.
Ian Leslie, “The sugar conspiracy”, Guardian, 2016-04-07.
April 17, 2016
April 4, 2016
March 3, 2016
Tim Harford explains why cheaper oil is generally speaking good for the economy:
After years in which $100 oil was the norm, the price of Brent crude is now around a third of that. Assume for a moment that Russia and Saudi Arabia fail in their efforts to get the price back up. Will $30 oil change the world? The answer is yes, of course. Everything is connected to everything else in economics, and that is particularly true when it comes to oil. For all the talk of the weightless economy, we’re not quite so post-industrial as to be able to ignore the cost of energy. Because oil is versatile and easy to transport, it remains the lubricant for the world’s energy system.
The rule of thumb has always been that while low oil prices are bad for the planet, they’re good for the economy. Last year a report from PwC estimated that a permanent fall in the price of oil by $50 would boost the size of the UK economy by about 1 per cent over five years, since the benefits — to most sectors but particularly to heavy industry, agriculture and air travel — would outweigh the costs to the oil production industry itself.
That represents the conventional wisdom, as well as historical experience. Oil was cheap throughout America’s halcyon years of the 1950s and 1960s; the oil shocks of the 1970s came alongside serious economic pain. The boom of the 1990s was usually credited to the world wide web but oil prices were very low and they soared to record levels in the run-up to the great recession. We can debate how important the oil price fluctuations were but the link between good times and cheap oil is not a coincidence.
Here’s a piece of back-of-the-envelope economics. The world consumes nearly 100 million barrels a day of oil, which is $10bn a day — or $3.5tn a year — at the $100 price to which we’ve become accustomed. A sustained collapse in the oil price would slice more than $2tn off that bill — set against a world economic output of around $80tn, that’s far from trivial. It is a huge transfer from the wallets of oil producers to those of oil consumers.
February 25, 2016
Published on 22 Feb 2016
It’s chair of wisdom time again. This time Indy is talking about the salary of a soldier, the flying aces of the other fronts next to the Western Front and important inventions of World War 1 that you use every day.
February 12, 2016
The period of Colonial expansion coincided with three major developments in weapon-power: the general adoption of the small-bore magazine rifle, firing smokeless powder; the perfection of the machine gun; and the introduction of quick-firing artillery.
By 1871, the single-shot breech-loading rifle had reached so high a standard of efficiency that the next step was to convert it into a repeating, or magazine, rifle. Although the idea was an old one, it was not fully practicable until the adoption of the all-metal cartridge case, which reduced jamming in the breech. The first European power to introduce the magazine rifle was Germany who, in 1884, converted her 1871 pattern Mauser rifle to the magazine system; the magazine was of the tube type inserted in the fore-end under the barrel, it held eight cartridges. In 1885, France adopted a somewhat similar rifle, the Lebel, which fired smokeless powder — an enormous advantage. Next, in 1886, the Austrians introduced the Mannlicher with a box magazine in front of the trigger guard and below the entrance to the breech. And two years later the British adopted the .303 calibre Lee-Metford with a box magazine of eight cartridges, later increased to ten. By 1900 all armies had magazine rifles approximately of equal efficiency, and of calibres varying from .315 to .256; all were bolt operated, fired smokeless powder, and were sighted to 2,000 yards or metres.
Simultaneously with the development of the magazine rifle proceeded the development of the machine gun — another very old idea. Many types were experimented with and some adopted, such as the improved Gatling, Nordenfeldt (1873), Hotchkiss (1875), Gardner (1876), Browning (1889) and Colt (1895). The crucial year in their development was 1884, when Hiram S. Maxim patented a one barrel gun which loaded and fired itself by the force of its recoil. The original model weighed 40lb., was water cooled and belt fed, and 2,000 rounds could be fired from it in three minutes. It was adopted by the British army in 1889, and was destined to revolutionize infantry tactics.
The introduction of quick-firing artillery arose out of proposals made in 1891 by General Wille in Germany and Colonel Langlois in France. They held that increased rate of fire was impossible unless recoil on firing was absorbed. This led to much experimental work on shock absorption, and to the eventual introduction of a non-recoiling carriage, which permitted of a bullet-proof shield being attached to it to protect the gun crew. Until this improvement in artillery was introduced, the magazine rifle had been the dominant weapon, now it was challenged by the quick-firing gun, which not only outranged it and could be fired with almost equal rapidity, but could be rendered invisible by indirect laying.
J.F.C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961, 1961.
February 9, 2016
Published on 8 Feb 2016
Zeppelins pioneered the skyways, could fly long distances and reached heights like none of the British fighter-interceptor aircraft before. Because of that, they were used for scouting and tactical bombing early in the First World War. In this special episode we introduce these majestic floating whales and their usage in WW1.
January 30, 2016
Published on 17 Apr 2014
Tanks were invented by the British during the First World War. Historian Dan Snow traces their development, from prototype to battlefield fixture.
December 30, 2015
Colby Cosh on the real significance of the private space companies’ successes:
The science fiction authors who originally imagined spaceflight thought it would be classically capitalistic in nature — a Wild West of chancers, gold-diggers, outlaws, and even slave-traders transposed to the skies. It ended up, in its first incarnation, being a government program. This had the merit of showing that some impossible technical problems could be solved if you threw near-infinite resources and human lives at them. But the money and will ran out before NASA got around to figuring out how to make orbital spaceflight truly routine. Reusable rockets are the important first step that NASA didn’t have time to try in the Golden Age, under the pressure of a “space race” between governments.
Musk and Bezos are trying, I think very consciously, to revive the public interest and inspiration that this race narrative once brought. When SpaceX stuck its landing this week, having previously had a couple of flops, Bezos tweeted “Welcome to the club!” Musk will not mind the cheap shot too much. Bezos is doing him a favour by making a game of it.
It is hard for us to feel passion about accounting, even when “accounting” translates to cheaper satellite technology that means subtle advances in science and cost cuts in earthbound communications tech. Anything you can turn into a mere clash of personalities will get the attention of journalists and readers more readily. Musk and Bezos are exploiting their position as two of the great stage characters of our day.
The benefit they’re really going for is to bring a slightly larger margin of the human neighbourhood within reach for spaceships assembled on orbital platforms — the only practical kind of spaceship, as it seems to have turned out. Routine orbital access means affordable space tourism; it means possible Mars missions predicated on traditional exploration/adventure motives; it means deeper scientific scrutiny and even commercial study of the Moon, the asteroids, perhaps the inner planets. It means space stations that aren’t just for handpicked careerist supermen.
It means — well, we don’t know, from this side of the future, what it means. Some grade-three kid out there may already have a “killer app” for reusable rockets that nobody has considered yet. (If the cost comes down far enough, are we certain rockets won’t re-emerge as a possibility for long-haul terrestrial travel? That’s another assumption of early SF we have discarded, perhaps carelessly!) But it is probably a good guess that the balletic SpaceX triumph will turn out, after the fact, to have been one of the biggest stories of 2015.
December 26, 2015
Yes, Moist thought, there would be changes. You’d still find horses in town and Iron Girder couldn’t plough, although for a certainty Mr Simnel could make her do so. “Some people will lose out and others will benefit, but hasn’t that been happening since the dawn of time?” he said out loud. “After all, at the beginning there was the man who could make stone tools, and then along came the man who made bronze and so the first man had to either learn to make bronze too, or get into a different line of work completely. And the man who could work bronze would be put out of work by the man who could work iron. And just as that man was congratulating himself for being a smarty-pants, along came the man who made steel. Its like a sort of dance, where no one dares stop because if you did stop you’d be left behind. But isn’t that just the world in a nutshell?”
Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam, 2013.
December 10, 2015
At The Arts Mechanical, there’s a paean to the amazing technological achievement represented by this steam engine:
… and a return to reality by looking at how that amazing steam engine was made utterly obsolete by a humble diesel switcher and its direct descendants:
Which brings us to the picture at the head of this post. Anybody ever hear of Lima Locomotive? Here is what they did. That is a C&O RR H8 Allegheny. It is the largest and most powerful steam locomotive ever built. The locomotive was in the shed and there was no way I could get a side shot but the size of it boggles the mind. The firebox is the same size as a small house. The locomotive was designed to move mountains of coal and that’s what it did.
It was also obsolete before it was erected.
November 27, 2015
Published on 18 Mar 2015
Why are price signals and market competition so important to a market economy? When prices accurately signal costs and benefits and markets are competitive, the Invisible Hand ensures that costs are minimized and production is maximized. If these conditions aren’t met, market inefficiencies arise and the Invisible Hand cannot do its work. In this video, we show how two major processes, creative destruction and the elimination principle, work with the Invisible Hand to create a competitive marketplace that works for producers and consumers.
November 24, 2015
Megan McArdle says you can safely avoid novel and baroque food variations for the most stereotypical American meal of all time:
Every year you’re supposed to come up with something amazing and new to do with the most scripted meal in the American culinary canon. Turkey crusted with Marash pepper and stuffed with truffled cornichons. Deconstructed mashed potatoes. Green bean casserole that substitutes kale for the green beans and a smug expression for the cream-of-mushroom soup. Pumpkin-chocolate trifle with a chipotle-molasses drizzle.
I’m sorry, I can’t. I just can’t.
You know what we’re having for Thanksgiving at our house this year? With minor variations, we’re having the same thing we’ve had every year since my birth in 1973. There will be a turkey, roasted whole, because my oven cannot accommodate a spatchcocked 16-pound bird splayed over a sheet pan full of stuffing. It will be brined in a cooler, stuffed full of stuffing despite all the dire culinary injunctions against it, and cooked in the same undoubtedly subpar way we have always done it. My sister will make her homemade cloverleaf rolls, and stuffing with sausage, ginger and apple. There will be cranberry sauce, little creamed onions, mashed potatoes, and butternut squash, with bok choy for those who want greens. For dessert, there will be pie: apple, pumpkin, and perhaps, if we are feeling especially daring, cranberry-raisin.
Novelty is overrated at holidays. If you want to try planked salmon and braised leeks for the first time this year, then bon appetit. But the idea that we must have novelty, that a good cook is constantly seeking out new and better things, is a curse. The best parts of our lives do not require constant innovation; they are the best because they are the familiar things we love just as they are. When I hug my Dad, I don’t think, “Yeah, this is pretty OK, but how much better would it be if he were wearing a fez and speaking Bantu?”
November 19, 2015
Published on 10 Oct 2015
While Yi found success at sea, the Korean land army suffered terrible losses. Yi Il, the man who once accused Yi of negligence, lost one battle after another, until finally the regular forces were annihilated at Chungju. The Joseon court that ruled to Korea fled to Pyongyang, on the verge of being pushed out of their own country. But that same day, Admiral Yi tore through a Japanese fleet at Okpo. He moved on to Sacheon, where he baited the Japanese commander into a trap and debuted his turtle ship. The unstoppable turtle ship carried the day, so he used this tactic again and again he destroyed a Japanese fleet while suffering no losses of his own. Finally, Hideyoshi ordered his naval commanders to take Jeolla, Yi’s headquarters. Sadly for him, his general Wakisaka Yasaharu grew too eager and engaged Yi without backup at Gyeonnaeryang Strait, only to find himself lured into an even more sophisticated version of Yi’s bait-and-retreat strategy: a “Crane’s Wing” of ships that collapsed on the overextended target from all sides. In one of the largest naval battles in history, Yi scored a decisive win and again didn’t lose a single ship. He headed to Angolpo to attack Hideyoshi’s two remaining generals and seal his victory, but they refused to be baited. He had to settle for a long range exchange of cannon fire, which worked at the cost of many injuries to his own men. In the end, he destroyed all but a few Japanese ships, and those he only spared to give the Japanese some means to escape and stop raiding in Korea. But he had accomplished his goal: Hideyoshi ordered a halt to all naval operations except guarding Busan, and without this control of the sea, Japan could not re-supply their troops nor hope to resume the assault that would have finally pushed Korea’s leaders out of Korea.
November 18, 2015
Published on 22 Feb 2015
Adam Smith was one of the first men who explored economic connections in England and made clear, in a time when Mercantilism reigned, that the demands of the market should determine the economy and not the state. In his books Smith was a strong advocator of the free market economy. Today we give you the biography of the man behind the classic economic liberalism and how his ideas would change the world forever.
November 15, 2015
Pulkit Chandna reviews the “Brewie”:
In the future, at-home beer brewing will be a set-it-and-forget-it cinch, and not the convoluted mess we have always known it to be. That’s the feeling one gets from looking at Brewie, the latest in a series of countertop appliances designed to automate the process of beer crafting.
The Hungarian startup behind it claims Brewie is better and more automated than the competition — including the PicoBrew Zymatic home brewery we reviewed back in June. That lofty claim has helped the company secure hundreds of pre-orders, worth more than $600,000, across two crowdfunding rounds on Indiegogo. It concluded the first leg in February with a funding tally of $223,878, only to return to the site late last month in search of yet more pre-orders. (Indiegogo, as part of its “InDemand program” allows project creators to accept contributions or orders even after their crowdfunding campaign has ended.)
The Brewie is said to distill the whole brewing process down to a series of simple steps requiring negligible human input, such that even the most hopeless of aspiring brewmasters can get started with it in no time at all. You can control the unit either through its 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen or via the companion app over Wi-Fi.