Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tangent Ramblings

I've always been fascinated with scientific ideas that are new to me, it is amazing how complex and diverse the world is. I've chosen to follow a scientific path. Science is a way of thinking and viewing the world that can provide profound insights into how the universe works, but it has some limits. Specifically, science doesn't deal well with the interconnectedness between seemingly unconnected ideas and by its nature it looses the non-linear path taken to gain knowledge in the first place. It is possible that the path taken to new ideas may have impacted what those ideas turned out to be and how long it took for them to be accepted – for example the probabilistic nature of quantum particles was deemed impossible by many notable scientists at the time including Einstein.

My own research is fascinating but, sometimes I want to explore the world with a broader view. I want to consider how we came up with ideas that are now considered as commonplace and obvious. I want to follow the path of how an idea came to be and the seemingly random ideas that diverge from this path.

A decade ago I was working in Europe and my employer gave me the option of flying home or to somewhere else in between. For a week's holiday I chose to go to Florence, kinda randomly as I had no idea what I would be doing when I got there. For that week I walked everywhere, eventually stumbling on the Institute and Museum of the History of Science located somewhat off the main track in a Renaissance era building. I went in. It was a weekday and late fall, so the museum was virtually deserted.

I love the old scientific instruments, how they are crafted out of polished wood and custom made brass fittings – as though someone really cared for the aesthetics as well as the function. I work in a field where our instruments are a combination of high tech electronics and ordinary plumbing supplies that all gets slapped together and tossed into salt water. The craftsmanship and beauty of old instruments captivated my imagination.

That day I strolled from case to case looking at models showing the concentric circles of the old view of the heavens, gruesome diagrams of early human dissections beside the grim looking tools used, then I came to a room of telescopes, ramps and microscopes – the original instruments used by Galileo. I looked at each one in turn until I came to a cabinet against the back wall, on the centre shelf was a human finger. The caption said it was Galileo's, removed when his body was exhumed in 1737 from the unconsecrated ground where he was buried after his death in 1642. His body was then transferred to a mausoleum in a Florentine church.

I'm not particularly squeamish, but seeing that finger startled me. It felt out of place in a room full of crafted instruments and I was instantly curious why it would be there.

I often come across ideas, topics and concepts that are out of place in my research, like a finger in a room full of instruments, but none the less I feel compelled to investigate further. I will collect some of these 'tangents' here and include my thoughts on them. My aim is to broaden my own knowledge of science while adding a splash of history and perhaps a dash of math. I love to sift through ideas and explore a smattering of topics drawing connections between them, especially when at first glance the topics hold nothing in common. I have no intention of providing a precise summary of science and my own views are bound to be flawed.

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