Tag Archives: science

“What If?” by Randall Munroe


This is a collection of entries from the xkcd What If? blog, with maybe some new ones written specifically for the book.  On that blog, the author takes pretty much any crazy question and applies scientific knowledge and physical principles in order to come up with an answer.  It’s pretty wild stuff most of the time.  I think my favorite entry though did not get as mathematical as some of the others: “What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?”  The short answer is pretty much nothing; but Munroe carries the consequences of testing this out a bit further.

I’m not sure if I am better off after reading this book, but it was fun to read.  Being able to roughly estimate and extrapolate physical principles is pretty useful, I guess.

What If?” is available from Amazon.


“Physics for Future Presidents” by Richard A. Muller

With any political issue, there are often as many opinions on the nature of the problem and form of the ideal solution as there are people in the room.  In this book Muller tries to cut through the chaff, writing as a Presidential Science Adviser of sorts, explaining the science behind these problems and solutions.  (Of course, even scientific results can be colored by personal politics, but I’m sure Dr. Muller is totally impartial.  [Right?  Right??])

Pretty interesting read; actually echoed a lot of what I read recently in The World in 2050.  I’ve captured some of the more interesting points in my notes below, following Muller’s main sections for the book.


  •  The collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 was due to the intense heat of the jet fuel-fed fire, which weakened steel columns until they buckled under the weight of the building.  The impact and explosion was not a big factor.  This brings up an obvious point — gasoline and other fuels have very high energy density, which is why we like them, but that also makes them much more practical for terrorists to use such commonly available materials than exotic stuff like bio or nukes.
  • Continuing that thought — it is very unlikely for any non-state sponsored terrorist group to be sophisticated enough to build a nuclear weapon, large or small.  Even if they could construct a relatively simple “dirty bomb,” the threat is not too high: if they want to affect a lot of people, then the radioactivity will be diluted over a large area and probably be unnoticed.  If they want to affect a small area, then they don’t kill many people … also with any dirty bomb situation, the ones most at risk of a problematic dose of radiation are the terrorists themselves, during construction and deployment of the weapon.  The biggest danger with a dirty bomb is probably the likelihood of the public to panic.
  • Post 9/11 security procedures (TSA, etc.) seem to be working well — we’re basically requiring suicide tactics in order for terrorists to be able to do anything, and those terrorists willing to die for their cause are typically not the sharpest tools in the shed so are easily caught.


  • Coal is very cheap and there is a lot of it.  It’s even possible to make oil from coal via Fischer-Tropsch (thanks, Nazis!) but not economical until a certain price.  Fears about running out of oil are unfounded — price will increase, driving more exploration and extraction but also will make alternatives like coal more viable.
  • Solar is very promising, but needs much cheaper cells (and probably cheaper battery storage technology) before it gets profitable and starts taking off.   Solar cars are never going to be mainstream, simply due to size … even 100% efficient solar cells on a typical car roof will only generate a few horsepower, whereas most cars today require 50-200 hp.
  • Hybrid cars are a good idea because they cut energy use, but not a money saver – any fuel savings get blown away when the batteries (finite number of charges) need to be replaced, a point many current hybrid owners and enthusiasts have not reached.


  • As currently designed, nuclear power plants (fission) cannot produce an atomic explosion, even if all safety mechanisms fail.  We should be building more of them, and keep that fusion research going!
  • Waste storage has been grossly mischaracterized … it is not really necessary to secure waste for tens of thousands of years; it will “only” take maybe 300 years for radiation to fall to natural radiation source levels, which we implicitly deem “ok.”  300 years is still a long time, but makes the storage solution much more manageable.


  •  “The space shuttle is big engineering; it is the dream of man in space; it is an adventure.  But it is not safe, it cannot be made safe, and it is not done for science.”  Unmanned is clearly the cheaper and safer route, if our motivation in space is really scientific research.


  • IPCC is the only climate group worth listening to, per Muller… very conservative, careful, and scientific approach.  They predict 95% chance that observed global warming is not due to natural variation, and 90% chance at least some of the warming is human-caused.  (Interesting that the 10% ambiguity is due to difficulty in modeling the effect of cloud cover.  Clouds seem to be part of a global warming negative feedback loop: higher temp -> more evaporation -> more clouds -> reflect more incoming sunlight.)
  • Combating climate change if difficult due to the abundance of coal, the a very dirty fossil fuel.  Even if the US drastically cuts fossil fuel use, the world is still going to be in trouble, because China and India will soon surpass us and have no intentions of cutting back.
  • Muller’s solution is to make conservation a bigger priority.  Don’t prohibit or deprive people of energy; just make it more profitable for them to use less, eg by making more energy-efficient products.  Muller calculates that a 2% annual overall energy efficiency increase will lead to a population 10 billion Earth in 2100, all living a current European standard of living but using half as much energy as today.  Sounds good; pour those R&D dollars into making more efficient fridges and stuff!  (Probably another side of this is let energy prices increase … attach more of the true cost to the dollar cost, if there is one.)

Here’s one of my own ideas about dealing with climate change: maybe it is time to accept the fact that it is probably going to be hotter, and start to work on developing drought and heat resistant crops.

Physics for Future Presidents is available from Amazon.

“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson


The mark of a good journalist is being able to simply explain difficult concepts.  Bryson does so in an entertaining way in this history of science (similar ground covered by The Discoverers).  I also liked Richard Matthews’ crisp British accent in this unabridged audiobook.

The flow was very good.  Generally, it follows investigations into a few “big questions” that ultimately spawned entirely new scientific disciplines, or significant overhauls to existing ones: measuring the size of the Earth for astronomy and physics; estimating the age of the Earth for geology and biology.

One thing about science is that it is always changing.  Plenty of examples in this book about theories which were widely accepted in their day, but a completely discredited today in favor of something else.  This is good.  But whenever the current “correct” theory is discussed, Bryson seems to treat it as fact when it is simply our current best guess.  This is pretty excusable though — constantly harping on the uncertainties would cause the average reader to come away with more questions than “answers” … (but maybe that is good for science…)

The other takeaway is how seemingly vulnerable we are.  As an example of the civilization and perhaps species-ending events which may occur at any time and without warning are: a powerful solar flare which rips away the ionosphere and irradiates all life on Earth; the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing and covering North America in several feet of ash and inducing a new ice age; a large asteroid striking the Earth with a similar effect.

“The Discoverers” by Daniel J. Boorstin


Book #100!

An ambitious title – the history of “discovery,” which can really be interpreted in many ways. I liked the stuff about calendars, clocks, maps and exploration. However, the sections on medicine and sociology in the latter third or so of the book was a bit of a slog. Each chapter is almost like a standalone essay, but they do flow well … until the end, which ends quite abruptly. (It discusses atomic theory; perhaps setting up Einstein’s quote “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” in order to sum up the whole book.)

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff here; I’ll share some of the best bits I learned from reading.

  • The origins of our calendar are in the lunar cycle, which provided a ~30 day month. This didn’t quite mesh with the solar year, which the Egyptians determined quite accurately to be 365 1/4 days long. The origin of the seven day week is unknown, perhaps the sun + moon + five known planets? Twenty-four hours in a day comes from the Babylonians, who had a 12-based counting system. While 10-based seems logical to use due to 10 fingers, 12 is also not a stretch — it’s the number of knuckles on one hand (excluding thumb), which were counted off using the opposing hand’s thumb.
  • Clocks are known as “mother of machines.” In order to make them work, medieval craftsmen had to discover mechanisms of transferring mechanical energy. Once this was figured out for clocks, the same principles were applied to many other things, and here we are today with Iphones. Any, the key to clocks were the verge escapement and pendulum. There was a positive driving force behind developing clocks from the Church: they needed to ring the bells at different times of day for Catholic prayers. (Why didn’t Muslims make clocks first? Was it because they used only verbal calls to prayer?)
  • Originally, the hour was a division of daylight into equal partitions. This is fine I guess if you really have no way to accurately measure time, but rather tricky to automate such timekeeping with a clock, since amount of daylight varies per location on the globe and differs from day to day. Early clock makers tried to follow this with complicated systems that required almost constant and setting calibration before simplifying things to the current system. It was the right thing to do — later the discovery of an accurate way to measure longitude depended on clocks. What you do is set your clock at high noon at a known location, then go sailing and check your clock at “high noon” wherever you happen to be (when the sun is directly overhead). The difference your clock says from noon is the difference in longitude you have traveled. It’s no coincidence that degrees of longitude (and latitude) are subdivided into minutes and seconds. (How to tell latitude? Just get a stick with a weighted string on the end. Point it to the North Star and measure the angle of the string.  There you go, that’s latitude.)
  • On the other hand, mapmaking and geography suffered negatively from the Church’s influence. Reasonably accurate physical maps and a latitude/longitude-like grid system inherited from the Greeks and Romans were discarded in favor of an overly-literal Biblical layout: rough circle with Asia taking up one half, Europe and Africa the other, with Jerusalem in the middle and all 3 continents separated by the Mediterranean.
  • Prince Henry the Navigator is kind of a new hero for me after reading this book. He focused on mapmaking, new ship design (caravel), and setting up conditions for “incremental discovery” — kind of like an early research institute. One major obstacle to the early Portuguese was Cape Bojador in West Africa. It was the ends of the earth to them – difficult to circumvent, both logistically and psychologically. But once they did, it was almost like an attitude of “hey, that wasn’t so bad! And look at all this cool new stuff!” (Some of the “cool stuff” to them was slaves … Portuguese quickly became big slave traders. Not so cool from our perspective.) Year by year, the explorers ventured further and further until Gama rounded the Cape and was on to India. There’s an early Portuguese saga, Camoens‘ “Lusiads,” which is about this golden age of Portuguese exploration; it stuck out to me because Burton who I just read about was very interested in Camoens and this period as well.
  • Modern-day denizens are astounded by the brutality of the times. When Gama came a second time to India, this time in conquistador-mode, he rounded up several random Indians without cause, killed them, cut off their hands and heads, and sent it on to persuade Calicut’s ruler to surrender. Needless to say, resistance was brief. Gama is a Portuguese hero.  And, while the barbarism of the Vikings is not unknown, it’s horrifying that one Norseman was renowned for his gentleness, since he refused to impale small children, a typical way for Vikings to unwind at the end of a long day of pillaging. (Presumably, this gentle Viking had no qualms about whatever he did to the parents!)
  • The origin of the term “America” – Columbus always insisted that he had reached Asia. Later, Amerigo Vespucci went down S. America coast and publicly speculated that it was an entirely new land. The secrecy of Spain and Portugal regarding their discoveries (the nuclear secrets of the age) meant the outside world didn’t hear of everything right away. Vespucci came later than Columbus, but his accounts became more widespread earlier. A mapmaker in France heard of Vespucci and put his name on the new world, and it stuck.
  • Linnaeus – the whole genus-species naming convention happened basically all at once, largely by him. Latin names don’t necessarily describe the organism, just a way to remember and categorize the organism and define it across language boundaries.

“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

In 1854, the working class Soho district of London experienced a particularly virulent outbreak of cholera.  The leading theory of the day was that cholera, and indeed most diseases, were caused by “miasma” or bad, stinky air.  Not too bad of a guess.  But some doctors noticed that for cholera (actually a waterborne bacteria) the infection patterns didn’t seem to support the miasma theory.  Data collection on disease and mortality rates and characteristics was in its infancy; physician John Snow was looking for data that would prove his theory of waterborne cholera.  He found it by mapping the cholera deaths and the victims’ nearest source of pump water.  By doing so it became quite clear that using a single water source, the Broad Street pump, was the biggest factor correlated with contracting and dying of cholera.

Kind of a cool story about one of the first examples of modern data-driven analysis.  Not many authorities believed Snow’s analysis; it took several years (and another outbreak) for him to be vindicated by history.  I admire Snow’s dogged determination, his sticking to the observable facts, and looking at things in a different way than anyone had ever done before.  The author mentioned Snow’s key to a bulletproof analysis: identify the trend, explain outliers (unexpected manifestations) and (equally important) explain the lack of expected manifestations.

Now, the history of this whole thing is cool and interesting.  But I had some problems with “The Ghost Map.”  For one thing, it is too long.  It’s actually a quick read, but there seemed be a lot of beating the same drum over and over about Snow and others discovering the source of the Broad Street contagion.  Then there is the book’s conclusion, where the author asserts that we should all move to cities, fund genetic research, and get rid of nuclear weapons.  Huh?  Some admirable goals, I suppose, but I didn’t quite make the author’s leap from 19th century epidemiology to these other topics.  My impression was that he now had the reader’s attention and wished to promulgate his personal opinions from that soapbox.  Kind of dubious; if he wanted to write on those other subjects then I think he should have stuck them in a different book.

“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

Another audio book listened to during the commute.  Kudos to Stephen Briggs for a spot-on narration.  Reminded me of the work of another Brit, Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter series – distinct voices for each characters, etc.  But I digress.

“Nation” is not set in Pratchett’s Discworld, but like those novels it also contains a very high witty humor density.  In “Nation” though, along with the enjoyable story which contains plenty of laughter-inducing moments, there is a treatment of weighty philosophical matters.  More on those in a bit.

The story takes place in the past of a world quite similar to our own.  The boy Mau is the sole survivor of a tsunami that wipes out his whole island’s tribe (the Nation).  The girl Daphne (Real given name: ‘Ermintrude.’  You would prefer Daphne as well, wouldn’t you?) is from Victorian Britain, daughter of minor royalty, and the sole survivor on the island of a ship wrecked by the same giant wave.  Mau and Daphne learn to work together for survival, first for themselves and later for other islanders who soon find their way to the Nation.

Now the philosophy stuff.  Really this is the point of the book, methinks.  Both Mau and Daphne, thrust into an unfamiliar situation, come into conflict with what they have been told to think their entire lives.  Mau wonders why the Nation’s traditions of the grandfathers and religion of the gods are what they are.  Daphne questions the justice behind the imperial attitude of her own nation, as well as why the manners and etiquette of the Victorian era really matter.  They both have to think for themselves, relying on the scientific method and simple pragmatism rather than (apparently) meaningless traditions.  The lesson here is to not blindly accept anything; questioning “why?” is nearly always a good idea.

A concept used in “Nation” that seems to be rather popular in sci-fi-ish literature of late (although I wouldn’t call “Nation” sci-fi) is the many worlds or parallel universe theory.  In a nutshell, the many worlds theory says that whenever there is a choice, made by man or nature, all possible alternatives actually happen, although each in a separate, newly branched, parallel universe.  (Interesting: Mau, able to sometimes see the “silver thread leading to the future” and possibly affecting the outcome of things, seemed a little like Fraa Jadd from Anathem.)

I just think this is too funny to skip mentioning:  The Southern Pelagic Ocean, where the Nation resides, is based on the South Pacific.  Islands in the Pelagic are often named after the day on which they were discovered by Western explorers, however unlike the custom in our world of sticking to major holidays, eg Easter Island and Christmas Island, the Pelagic boasts the Mothering Sunday (UK’s Mother’s Day, more or less) Islands and the Bank Holiday Monday Islands.  Ha!

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Wow. This is one great example of why I love science fiction. Lots of stuff in here to make you think – about history, morality, faith, technological progress, etc. Amazing that this book was written 50 years ago – doesn’t have much of the “cheese” factor that a lot of older SF had.

After civilization is almost completely destroyed in the nuclear holocaust in ~1970s (at one point there is discussion of who occupied the “White Palace” in the mid to late 60’s, so I’m guessing it’s shortly after that), the survivors blame science and technology and engage in the “Simplification,” where they destroy books and knowledge and murder as many scientists and engineers they feel were responsible for the devastation, thereby entrenching “cultural amnesia” as history and technology are largely forgotten – the Dark Ages are back again.

One engineer named Leibowitz managed to save some books and documents (“the Memorabilia”) and founded a Catholic order of monks out in the desert (somewhere in Arizona – New Mexico – Texas area, I’m guessing) devoted to preserving this knowledge before he was eventually killed. The story of Leibowitz isn’t directly told; his story is gleaned through the points of view of various monks/abbots of the abbey Leibowitz through the subsequent centuries. Three stories are examined.

First is the monk Francis, who discovers a previously unknown cache of documents from Leibowitz several hundred years after the “Flame Deluge.” Among them is a blueprint for some part that Leibowitz himself created, before the war. Francis spends 15 years making a beautiful, illuminated copy of the blueprint. When Leibowitz is to be canonized, Francis is chosen to travel to the ceremony at New Rome. On the way, he is stopped by robbers, who steal the illuminated copy, thinking it is the real thing. They say they will hold it for ransom if he brings them some gold. Francis is saddened, but realizes that his 15 years of work has preserved the original blueprint, which he presents to the Pope. Francis somewhat simple-mindedly goes back to the robbers later with some gold to retrieve his blueprint … they kill him.

Second (the weakest story in the book, IMO) is the story of Abbot Paulo. Several hundred more years have passed, and the hints of a Renaissance are strengthening. A scholar, Thon Taddeo, comes to review the documents preserved at the abbey. He is in the pay of a ruthless ruler plotting war and destruction. Paulo is upset by the thought of the gifts of the abbey (preserved history and scientific fact) being used to further conquest and political ambition; the foreshadowing is that civilization is headed down the same path that led to nuclear holocaust in the first place. Thon Taddeo disagrees: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”

The third story is the most powerful. Again several hundred years have passed, a full 1800 years since the first nuclear destruction, and now it is about to occur again. The abbey houses some refugees from one of the first nuclear strikes on a nearby city. The “Green Star” (Red Cross) arrives and wants to set up a “mercy camp,” where hopeless radiation cases are advised to go for euthanization. Abbot Zerchi vehemently objects; his faith can’t allow him to permit others to sin (murder/suicide) even if they don’t think it is wrong. Dr. Cors, the foil in his debate, contends that “Pain is the only evil” and “The laws of society are what makes something a crime or not” … ideas which are very prevalent in our world today. There is a powerful scene where Zerchi commands a woman not to take herself and her baby to the mercy camp, but police intervene and convince them to go. The abbey is destroyed in another nuclear strike. As Abbot Zerchi lies dying, he monologues about the mercy camps. “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law – a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.” and, to Dr. Cors’s assertion about pain being evil: “Why don’t you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn’t allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” As part of a contingency plan, a group of the monks leave on a starship to the colonies as nuclear bombs explode around the country. They carry with them the Memorabilia. It seems the Earth is doomed. Oh, and there is some weirdness with a lady with two heads in this third vignette. Hey, it’s science fiction.

Other points:

  • I liked how each abbot was very different. Francis’ Abbot Arkos is stern and strict, Paulo is gentle and kind, yet firm, and Zerchi is bold and zealous (he punches out Dr. Cors at the mercy camp).
  • I don’t get completely “Leibowitz”/Benjamin/the beggar … this is an old man who appears in all three stories. Who is he, really? How does he live so long? I think he is the “Wandering Jew”.
  • The monks are not credited one bit by society for saving the world’s history and science, by Taddeo or in the third story’s time (the police call Zerchi a “crazy kook” and the monks his “gang”).
  • I wonder if the author is Catholic? He seems to know a lot about it. Lots of Latin here and there.

“Coming of Age in the Milky Way” by Timothy Ferris

This book is a great overview of the history of astronomy.  Since advances in astronomy affected many other branches of science as well, particularly physics, one may say that the scope of the book is the history of science as a whole.  This is a very informative book and Mr. Ferris is not afraid to delve into some nitty gritty theories.  Most of the time his explanations are lucid and more easily understandable than in most college textbooks I’ve read.

I did things a little different while reading this book.  I put little strips of paper in at pages where I read something that I wanted to remember and put up here.  So here goes…I’ll list the page number just for the sake of reference.

pg. 30 – one of the first descriptions of the motions of the planets was the Ptolemaic model, consisting of spheres and epicycles.  Although ungainly, it was able to do a decent job of predicting the planetary locations.  Yet is was not the true order of things, as we have seen upon venturing out into the solar system via probes, etc.  This is a good example of the definition and proper frame of thinking about any scientific theory.  It may provide useful results, but is it the truth?  Not always.  We simplify things and try to make them fit observations, and when we are done we may have something that helps predict future results, but we still cannot claim complete understanding of the event.

pg. 116 – “When <Isaac> Newton was asked years later how he had discovered his laws of celestial dynamics, he replied, ‘By thinking of them without ceasing.'”  Wouldn’t it be great if more people thought without ceasing more often?

pg. 120 – Newton admitted that while the law of gravitation predicted planetary motion, he could not explain why it was so.  He maintained a faith that “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

pg. 192 – Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that the faster a particle is traveling, the more massive it becomes, and the slower its time relative to non-moving objects.  Weird.  This has all been experimentally confirmed, too.

pg. 262 – Quantum theory predicts what is known as “quantum tunneling,” which enables protons to approach close enough to each other to fuse.  Ferris analogizes this to a cannonball probabilistically penetrating a ten-foot-thick wall sometimes, without passing through it.  Weird yet again.  (pg. 288 – Neils Bohr – “If anybody says he can think about quantum problems without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.”)  Quantum theory makes me think of the Ptolemaic system sometimes – it is bizarre, but it does help predict an awful lot of things. But is it truly the way things happen?

pg. 290 – Einstein didn’t like the probabilistic nature of quantum theory, either: “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing, but an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.  The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one.’  I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice….I am quite convinced that someone will eventually come up with a theory whose objects, connected by laws, are not probabilities but considered facts.”

pg. 298 – Leon Lederman, on particle physics: “The standard model … explains so much, but it’s not complete….One of it’s greatest flaws is aesthetic.  It’s too complicated.  It has too many arbitrary parameters.  We don’t really see the creator twiddling seventeen knobs to set seventeen different parameters to create the universe as we know it.  The picture is not beautiful, and that drive for beauty and simplicity and symmetry has been an unfailing guidepost to how to go in physics.”

pg. 373 – on the probability of extraterrestrial life – some combine the probability another Earth-like planet existing, where water is neither frozen or boiling, with the right mixture of elements, and all the biological, social, and cultural variables that must work out so intelligent life can exist and progress to a detectable (ie radio wave generating) state, and come up with some pretty small numbers – something like one in 10^18, which is more than the total of planets in the galaxy.  Ferris points out some faults with this reasoning.  One, we are working with a single example of life…it’s pretty hard to draw general conclusions about anything with just a single example.  Plus, we don’t know everything about Earth or life on it.  So how can we make guesses about the probability of life on other worlds when we don’t fully comprehend ours.  Second, Ferris points out that by the same reasoning, it is extremely unlikely that you would be reading his book – that you exist, were born and educated and went down the path of experiencing everything leading up to reading the book, and he likewise went through all he did before writing it.

Ferris has a neat SciFi-ish idea about how future civilizations in space could communicate via networks of self-replicating probes that go throughout the galaxy and rely information back to each other.  It could take thousands or millions of years to communicate information between two points, but information about distant points were stored and archived more locally, then the time penalty is not nearly so bad.

In the concluding chapter, Ferris writes about how as we have “come of age” as a species and gained some understanding of our place in the universe, we have come to a realization of our ignorance.  The quest for knowledge will be never-ending due to the immense size and variety of the universe.  As we observe and gain more knowledge, our theories will become more and more refined.  Ernst Mach – “Theories are like withered leaves, which drop off after having enabled the organism of science to breathe for a time.”