baudrunner's space: A few regretable quotes
"Philosophy to Science - Quark to Cosmos. Musings on the Fundamental Nature of reality"

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Monday, January 21, 2008

A few regretable quotes

We start with a nugget of wisdom from one of the smartest science fiction writers of all time...

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." - Arthur C. Clarke

Why is it that the older we get the less we allow ourselves to accept new ideas? There must be an element of plain old stubbornness involved, the demand that the authority of age oft supersedes the rational coupled with the subconscious resentment that the inevitable degradation of the older brain's ability to process information as finely as it could when it was young tends to belittle our sense of self. After a lifetime of saying and doing, pride takes center stage yet among the lessons learned.
The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” - physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

Michelson was born in 1852. That would make him 42 years old when he made that statement. Notwithstanding that the average life expectancy of his generation was about 49, Michelson lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1931 at the age of 79. In fact, he authored his most important works from 1902 to 1927, well past "middle age". He was a specialist in optics and light, invented the interferometer and was the first to accurately measure the diameter of a star using light interference.
We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy." - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888
Newcomb was a mathematician and astronomer who was in the twilight of his years at the age of 53 when he said that. He would pass away in 1909, two decades before Edwin Hubble's discovery that the Universe was expanding.

In 1878, Newcomb began a collaboration with Albert Michelson to determine more exactly the speed of light, important in accounting for the values of astronomical constants. Newcomb used a refined method invented by Léon Foucault based on an instrument involving the use of revolving mirrors and who in 1882 calculated the speed of light to within 0.6% of the currently accepted value. In 1880 with instruments located at Fort Myer and the United States Naval Observatory on the Potomac River, Newcomb and Michelson made their first measurements. Michelson would later make his own measurements which he published independently in 1880 and which results were substantially different from those which Newcomb had previously established. But, he refined his measurements and published new numbers in 1883 which agreed more closely with Newcomb's.

Newcomb was a fascinating man. A true savant and autodidact, self-taught in physics and mathematics, he could speak four languages, wrote on economics, and became learned in many fields. His observation that books of logarithms were more worn in the earlier pages than in the latter pages led to his discovery of Benford's law, the principle which states that more numbers will tend to have the leading digit 1 than any other number in any arbitrary set of data.

But he was as human as anyone else. Arthur C. Clarke may be credited with maintaining a degree of caution. But even he probably feels a little uneasy when he thinks of his earliest works of science fiction, probably a few concepts within which have long been superseded by reality. I still feel a little disturbed when viewing one of my favorite sci-fi films, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Of course I am talking about the film Bladerunner, which opens with a panorama of Los Angeles, with the superimposed caption "Los Angeles, 1997". For a plethora of this type of future vision, read Robert Heinlein's stories. Diamonds on the moon?
There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932
No individual should be deified for we are all imperfect - some of us just less than others.

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