Momentary Outrage Recess/Complete Non Sequitur QOD

Someone kindly greeting me here asked for a little science writing in the mix of my posts here.

Happy to oblige, especially when, as today, I found myself overwhelmed by the thought of some of the folks who may well be taking power soon.

In that context, I just had to cut myself off from the madness of the ‘tubes at lunchtime.  Instead, I grabbed a few minutes with Alan Lightman’s insufficiently well-known book, The Discoveries.

That collection contains Alan’s choices for the twenty five most important scientific papers of the 20th century, each framed by an original essay by Alan providing background, context, and a sense of the poetry of discovery.  (He lists only twenty two discoveries, by the way, doubling up papers on nuclear fission, the structure of DNA — bringing my family connection Rosalind Franklin into the mix, as he should — and on the the Cosmic Microwave Background).

You can argue with his selection.  I did — noting that he’d omitted Wegener’s paper on continental drift. (Background here.) The notion of a land forms in motion was so shocking at the time, and is so important to such a wide range of topics now, from evolutionary biology to climate change and much besides, that I would have placed it in my top five or so, much less within any top twenty tally.

Alan, correctly, pointed out that I am free to write my own damn book.  This was his list.

Fair enough.

So, (digress much? — ed.  Feature not bug. — TL) there I was, despairing at the depth and breadth of fail that seems to surround us these days, and so in search of a moment out of time I flipped open the book more or less at random, to a chapter titled “The Means of Production of Energy in Living Organisms,” which mostly focuses the Krebs and Johnson paper on the citric acid cycle.

Leave aside for a moment all the big-deal quality of that result, which, as it demonstrates an essential property shared by all living things on earth, is pretty big indeed.  I just stopped for a moment in sheer pleasure at this sentence:

To be exact, the energy for one minute of my typing was provided by fusions of one hundred billion atoms of hydrogen in the sun.

I’m sorry, and maybe this is just the explicit manifestation of the mark of the geek on me, but how cool is that?

(For the record, I’m well over a trillion fusions on this post.  Hydrogen quails when I come into view.)

One more thought.  Alan, ever a subtle writer, doesn’t just hang that number out in isolation.  He precedes it with this one: “To animate my fingers at this moment seven million million million molecules of ATP are severing their atomic bonds every minute…”

These are awfully round figures of course — more indications of the scales involved than anything to be seen as precise.  But that doesn’t confine them in that most dangerous of journalistic categories, the “too good to check” bin of  “facts.”

Instead, it’s a juxtaposition that carries with it a momentary glimpse of a scientist’s way of thinking.

That is:  compare the amount of nuclear reactions vs. chemical ones needed to produce the same quantity of energy, that which powers a minute’s typing. 108 for one, 7*1018 for the other.  That’s ten, almost eleven orders of magnitude difference in the amount of energy produced by a single reaction in either domain.

That’s still not much of an epiphany, I’ll grant you — but the juxtaposition provides at least a hint of much more lurking behind it.  The implications of the difference in energy between different kinds of physical processes are, after all, a pretty significant.

Think a little longer and you may notice more:  the size of the systems reacting are very different, and the much smaller one yields much more energy per reaction…and that in turn might tell you something else about the world (why it takes so damn much energy to get new information about the very early universe, for example) and so on.

I don’t want to pound on this too hard.  After all, I’m just talking about two stupidly fun facts.  But what I like about this is Alan’s very quiet way of illustrating the truism (one that applies way beyond physics) that no one number usually tells you all that much.  Two, in some kind of meaningful conversation…well then, now you know something, even if you don’t always know what it is.

And with that, back to the real world, and the struggle.

Image:  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Allegory of the Planets and the Continents,” 1752






59 replies
  1. 1
    Lowkey says:

    And TL wins the non-blogwar internets. I devoured Einstein’s Dreams, but hadn’t even heard of The Discoveries, to reinforce your earlier point. I’ve now added it to the top of my book list, so you win the bookosphere, also too.

  2. 2
    licensed to kill time says:

    I enjoyed reading that, even if I didn’t understand half of it. Scientists take a lot of words (and a trillion gazillion fusions-majiggies) to say “shit’s complicated and all interconnected”.

  3. 3
    gnomedad says:

    I’ll hunt hydrogen quails with you if you promise not to shoot me in the face.

  4. 4
    PurpleGirl says:

    You have a familial link to Rosalind Franklin — the X-ray crystallographer who did research on the structure of DNA? Neato. She deserved much more recognition for her work in X-ray diffraction images. (I did check with some quick research that I was remembering her work correctly.)

  5. 5

    “To animate my fingers at this moment seven million million million molecules of ATP are severing their atomic bonds every minute…”

    Did he count them? [1, 2, 3, . . . . ]

    I like your post. But I will admit that although I memorized the Krebs cycle a few times, I’ve had very little application for that information in my world.

    [this little molecule of ATP went to market, this little molecule of ATP stayed at home, this little molecule ]

  6. 6
    trollhattan says:

    Had to memorize the Krebs cycle in freshman zoology and promply forgot 98% of it, post test. Perhaps if I’d burned a few zillion more fusions on it I’d have retained more?

    Also, too, Texan sportscaster seems envious of Giants fans:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

  7. 7
    freelancer says:

    @licensed to kill time:

    Goddidit.

    Simpler. Is that better?

  8. 8
    joeyess says:

    To be exact, the energy for one minute of my typing was provided by fusions of one hundred billion atoms of hydrogen in the sun.

    Ahhhh……… We are stardust…. We are golden….

    The DFH’s were right again.

  9. 9
    Mark S. says:

    It amazes me how hostile scientists were to Wegener. What are the odds that the east coast of South America would line up perfectly with the west coast of Africa if they were never joined? That seems to me to be too big of a coincidence.

  10. 10
    licensed to kill time says:

    @freelancer: Thanks, dude. Now I can quit straining my braaaaaanz!

  11. 11
    Redshift says:

    Cool stuff. I remember reading about plate tectonics back when it was still considered speculative, and I agree that it was a big “wow!” moment.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @gnomedad: Clever.

  13. 13
  14. 14
    Bob L says:

    OFF TOPIC: looks like even that Liberal MSM(tm) is picking up on the problems with the polls. I suppose punditry need to start pre-positioning themselves to be the contrarian position(tm) of the narrative doesn’t play out next week.

  15. 15
    gnomedad says:

    @Mark S.:
    It’s hard to think of a parallel to such a ridiculously naive interpretation of data turning out to be true.

  16. 16
    freelancer says:

    @Mark S.:

    He needs to do moar Brawny Paper Towel Dear-hunting flannel ads. That way Alaskans will know how he’ll govern.

    He has a truck too, I bet. He should show that off.

  17. 17
    Zifnab says:

    @Redshift: See, I don’t remember that at all. It was simply presented in science class as how stuff worked and we accepted it at face value.

    I mean, they show you the neat video of volcanoes and kinda jigger around the continents to show how the snapped together and then pointed out how dinosaur fossils that should be specific to a region could be scattered on opposite sides of the ocean. All the logic panned out. I don’t think I ever heard anyone question it. :-p

  18. 18
    Tom Levenson says:

    @gnomedad: Can’t guarantee I’ll hit what we’re aiming at, (no Rutherford, me) but sure — let’s go.

  19. 19
    HumboldtBlue says:

    I enjoyed reading that, even if I didn’t understand half of it. Scientists take a lot of words (and a trillion gazillion fusions-majiggies) to say “shit’s complicated and all interconnected”.

    Indeed, most of that shit flew right over my head, but I caught the little words and am also cheered that my thoughts on purchasing the book have been corroborated and even, dare I say it, endorsed.

    Thank you weird science writer guy.

  20. 20
    Tom Levenson says:

    @PurpleGirl: Yup, though the connection to Franklin is a little tenuous. My mum was English, and that side of things was more clan than family — any connection became a cousin, which is how Franklin, whose nephew married my mother’s first cousin, became part of our crowd. She and mum were friends — she stayed in our house when she came to California (only once, I think) — but I must admit it takes a capacious idea of family (which we have) to make the claim.

    That said, we’ve put the alleged connection to good use. A little more than a decade ago, my older brother met James Watson at some scientific meeting, and on being introduced, identified himself as Rosalind’s cousin.

    Two weeks later, in completely unrelated circumstances. in a different city, and without knowing of my bro’s encounter, I happened to be introduced to Lucky Jim. I told him the exact same thing, and he visibly winced. It was as if he were suddenly afraid of being stalked by the ghost of Rosalind Franklin…as well he might.

  21. 21
    Tom Levenson says:

    @HumboldtBlue:

    “weird science writer guy”

    My new sig?

  22. 22

    @Mark S.:

    from Wikipedia on Wegener and continental drift:

    his hypothesis was not accepted until the 1950s, when numerous discoveries provided evidence of continental drift

    Sometime in the mid 1950s, one issue of The Weekly Reader came to my little hillbilly gradeschool with an article on the drift in the Atlantic, demonstrated by the difficulty in keeping a trans-Atlantic cable between the US and the UK intact.

    I must have been impressed, as I still remember it.

  23. 23
    HumboldtBlue says:

    My new sig?

    Sure, why the hell not?

  24. 24
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    Nice image, although speaking from personal experience I’ve always found those late-Baroque allegorical paintings on the ceiling to be a royal pain in the neck.

  25. 25
    Redshirt says:

    Yeah! Science. I’m becoming a giant science nerd in my dotage. I literally can’t get enough of it – and I mean all of it. Biology, chemistry, geology, all of it. I’m partial, however, to cosmology.

    For anyone interested, I just a completed a series of blog posts trying to explain… everything.. in as simple terms as I could. Here’s the last post in the series. If you like it, keep reading.

  26. 26

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ:

    Nice image, although speaking from personal experience I’ve always found those late-Baroque allegorical paintings on the ceiling to be a royal pain in the neck.

    :-)

  27. 27
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ: Have you been to Rome? You’d love it.

  28. 28
    JGabriel says:

    Tom Levenson:

    You can argue with [Lightman’s] selection. I did—noting that he’d omitted Wegener’s paper on continental drift.

    And Turing’s paper, “On The Computable Numbers”. But who’s counting. Alan’s right. You could probably produce another two or three books of 25 essays each, of scientific papers from the 20th c., without any drop in quality.

    When it comes to scientific discovery and invention, it was the busiest century evah! (so far …)

    .

  29. 29
    Mark S. says:

    Geez, I remember reading Wegener died on an expedition in Greenland, but I didn’t know all the grisly details:

    During the journey the temperature reached −60 °C (−76 °F) and Loewe’s toes became so frostbitten they had to be amputated with a penknife without anaesthetic.

  30. 30

    For folks who like numbers served with their politics, a post on DailyKos, Doomed vs. Not Doomed, has some interesting statistics.

    I really don’t know if this analysis is relevant, but it is interesting.

    When I get really anxious, I go to dkos and they usually talk me down.

  31. 31
    Dennis SGMM says:

    The big numbers that get used in some scientific papers make me feel like an aborigine: “Um, that’s a lot!” On the other hand, when I was a kid we went to the Seattle expo. The Treasury had set up a million silver dollars in a glass walled truck trailer. My reaction then was, “Um, that’s a lot!”

  32. 32
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Randomly related question (it has to do with numbers): During a recent conversation with my sis-in-law (a Microsoft developer), she mentioned that she uses passwords with long keys that contain a randomly generated number. I remarked that the number could not have been truly random since it was generated by some sort of algorithm (functionally random, I accept). She insisted that it was indeed truly random. Back and forth ensued. Science folks, can you tell me who was correct and point me towards a source?

  33. 33
    PurpleGirl says:

    Tom #20: They deserved to be stalked by her ghost. In high school I did a lot of reading about DNA and Watson & Crick’s work and that lead to reading about other researchers who were working in the area at the time. In a Scientific American article there was an extensive piece about Dr. Franklin and reprints of some of her images. I was very impressed and I’ve remembered her and her work. However distant the relationship, I think it’s neat. (I started college as a chemistry major and later changed to political science.)

  34. 34
    TEL says:

    Yay!! A science post! After reading this, I had to go see if one of the key papers from (one of) my favorite scientists was included – chemiosmotic potential (Peter Mitchell). Of course it wasn’t, but it sounds like an interesting book. Peter Mitchell is one of the most interesting scientists I’ve learned about, his Nobel work was largely self-funded and was discounted for decades by better-established scientists at the time who were sold on their own worldview. The Nobel was finally awarded to him in 1978 (I think) to put to rest the “energy wars” (as scientists who work in the field called it).

    Sigh:

    I enjoyed reading that, even if I didn’t understand half of it. Scientists take a lot of words (and a trillion gazillion fusions-majiggies) to say “shit’s complicated and all interconnected”.

    Man, licensed should get together with my family – I hear that sort of stuff from them all the time (heh).

  35. 35
    TeeJay in AR says:

    You can argue with [Lightman’s] selection.

    I think “can” is a little generous here. He cites nothing but advances in physics and biology as great discoveries of the 20th century. As you and others have pointed out, other fields also made notable progress during this period. This oversight is perhaps why Lightman’s book is “insufficiently well-known.”

  36. 36
    sherifffruitfly says:

    The author appears to get a lot of shit just plain wrong in his glosses.

    But whatever – people reading historical primary sources is something that should be encouraged. It infinitely better than idiots thinking they’re smart because they read some pop-sci crap. At least when they glance at the primary sources and run away crying back to their pop-sci bullshit, they’ll realize how truly dumb they are.

  37. 37
    WyldPirate says:

    @Mark S.:

    It amazes me how hostile scientists were to Wegener. What are the odds that the east coast of South America would line up perfectly with the west coast of Africa if they were never joined? That seems to me to be too big of a coincidence.

    This. There must have been scads of little elementary school kids staring at maps and/or globes in their geography classes who thought the same thing. I know I was one of them way back in the mid-late 60s who thought the same thing.

    But scientists have this pesky little habit of testing hypotheses and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Wegener likely took a lot more shit than he deserved at the time, though. I doubt that he took more shit than Barbara McClintock did, though.

  38. 38

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I hate the crap out of randomly created passwords. I had one when I was the PA to the Chief of Staff at the Nato HQ in Scotland to access the top secret “signals” (now e-mail) and I could never remember the totally random collection of numbers and letters that made no sense.

  39. 39
    HyperIon says:

    Found in this post:

    (digress much?—ed. Feature not bug.—TL)

    So…someone is editing the front-pagers?
    Who might that be?
    Or is TL just talking to his alter-ego editor?

  40. 40

    BTW this book (while more than likely totally and utterly over my head) reminds me of that fantastic British TV series that was done by whatshisface where he traces the invention of something back to its absolute earliest point. Damn I wish I could remember the mans name, he was brilliant. (I will be forever grateful if someone could come up with this otherwise I will be on Youtube all night typing in random words trying to come up with it).

  41. 41
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt: That makes things fun. When I needed to get access to TS things, I just needed to remember the combination to the NRAS safe. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of whether the numbers are random or “random.”

  42. 42
  43. 43
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt: That was shown on PBS in the US about 20 years ago or so. Great series.

  44. 44
    I have issues with Baltimore says:

    That’s ten, almost eleven orders of magnitude difference in the amount of energy produced by a single reaction in either domain.

    I’ve got to say, being able to talk about things in terms of orders of magnitudes is, to me, one of the great secret pleasures of being a scientist. Not sure why. Maybe there’s joy to be found in playing with such being numbers for a living.

    Also, Saturday Morning Breakfast.

  45. 45
    Cermet says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: She is wrong but that is so true of all MS people – their virus they call an operating system is a good example. That those “f”er’s make us test and fix their crap software as we pay through the nose is annoying to no end . Your point on why she is wrong appear to be dead on.

  46. 46
    dmsilev says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: You’re right. Computer-generated “random numbers” are technically pseudo-random; they’re generated by taking a seed number (say, the precise millisecond at which the computer passed a specific point in its boot sequence) and passing that through some algorithm that generates a number which appears to be random. Use the same seed, or set of seeds for more sophisticated algorithms, and you’ll get the same number out.

    There are some true random number generators around, but they all rely on some external source of randomness: decay of radioactive nuclei, atmospheric radio static, and the like. Wikipedia has a good article on the distinction between pseudo-random vs. true random.

    dms

  47. 47
    grunculus says:

    Hi Tom and All,

    Nice essay. I must pick an apparent nit, though.

    100 billion = 100e9 = 1e11

    7e18 / 1e11 = 7e7 or almost 8 orders of magnitude (not almost 11).

    :-)

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  48. 48
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Cermet: @dmsilev: Thank you. I shall quietly gloat. She happens to be one of those people who believes that her background in math, engineering, and computer science gives her more knowledge and understanding about everything in the world than anyone else. I will admit that, within her area, she is scary smart. The problem is her area of expertise is narrow, although her knowledge is deep. I, on the other hand, have always been more of a generalist and not in the science or tech realm. But let’s not get me started on how annoying she can be. She is a nice person and my wife’s only sibling.

  49. 49

    @Mark S.:
    I think it was mostly a question of mechanism. We scientists have a very hard believing that things can be true if we can’t think of a way that they could happen. As long as Continental Drift was just a theory that the continents had once been joined, but without a plausible mechanism for how the could have been separated, it was one more crackpot theory. It wasn’t until people figured out how the continents could move that they became really convinced that they had moved.

    You see similar things in other areas where there’s no obvious explanation of how things can happen. There were lots of questions about evolution until people learned enough about genetics to really get the mechanism. Similarly, there are a bunch of results from epidemiology- like a link between cell phones and cancer- that are viewed very skeptically because there’s no plausible mechanism.

  50. 50
    Baud says:

    @Redshirt:

    Me too. Have you checked out Leonard Susskind’s series of videos? They’re all fascinating, but there is one on cosmology you will probably like.

  51. 51
    PurpleGirl says:

    Litlebritdifrnt @ 42:

    I was about to suggest it was the James Burke “Connections” series. He did two series, as I remember. They were great in showing how you can start looking for one thing and find something different (and maybe more important). Being a science geek, they were enthralling.

  52. 52

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Science folks, can you tell me who was correct and point me towards a source?

    It depends on what you mean by “random” and exactly where her number came from. I don’t know exactly how it’s one in Windows, but in Linux they have both kinds. Computers have access to some sources of genuinely random data. For example, your desktop computer has access to the precise timing between your keystrokes as you type. There’s enough jitter in your nerves, the exact switch point for the keys, etc. that the least significant digits are truly random. Some computers even have things like quantum white noise generators designed specifically to generate truly random numbers for cryptographic purposes.

    Once you have that random data, you can use it one of two ways. You can either return it directly to the user as a truly random number, or you can feed it into some kind of algorithm that will churn out a nearly infinite amount of apparently random (pseudorandom) numbers.

    The way you treat those pseudorandom numbers gets to the philosophical point of what you mean by randomness. Mathematicians have developed tests to see if a set of numbers are truly random or if they have some kind of underlying order. Good pseudorandom number generators will pass those mathematical tests of randomness They’re not truly random because somebody who knows the algorithm and the starting point can figure out what the next number is. But they’re good enough for practical purposes because it’s computationally infeasible to figure out the starting point by looking at a list of previous numbers that the algorithm spat out; you have to be given the secret starting point.

  53. 53
    WereBear says:

    In high school AP biology I learned the Kreb’s cycle by reading it into a tape recorder and hearing it in my sleep. I aced the test… and have random bits of it popping up in my head, unbidden, to this day.

    Too bad I didn’t go into the biological sciences.

  54. 54
    Redshirt says:

    Connections was a great program – remember when it used to air on TLC in America? Remember when TLC was about educational programs, and not “How I lost 60 pounds and a Dwarf and got married with a Monster Cake?”

    I weep for America.

    But the gold standard in general population science programming has to be Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan.

    Carl Sagan is the man!

  55. 55
    qunitillian says:

    Quick question Tom … do you have a list of science books that are great reads for the non-science experts like me? I dig reading books about the story behind the science, but I’m not always sure where to start. The Discoveries seems like a good start, but I wonder if it cracks your top 5-10 list. Any suggestions?

    Glad you and ABL are adding your voices here on the front page. Welcome to you both.

  56. 56

    […] So, while I’ll try to be more conscientious than I’ve been to flag posts over there over here, that’s where you should check in for my stuff — and all the rest as well.  It’s a great place to hang on the nets, and I’m honored and very happy to be sending stuff that way. (I’ve been talking thuggery and Godwin, but if you want to check out a relaxation, politics-free post on good science writing, the Krebs cycle, and how many hydrogen atoms died for this post, check this one out. […]

  57. 57

    @Omnes Omnibus: Late to the party, but I concur that you are right. My source: The TV show, Numb3rs.

    Tom, I dig the post. Like some others, I did not totally get it, but I got the gist. Keep up the good work.

    P.S. I will have to say that I feel guilty for using up so many billions of hydrogen atoms, though.

  58. 58
    Tom Levenson says:

    @asiangrrlMN: Thanks. I’ll see if I can improve the gist/non gist ratio in future.

  59. 59
    Tom Levenson says:

    @HyperIon: Hey, dude. Writing is a pretty solitary craft. We talk to ourselves. Sometimes, one side of the conversation takes on a role of its own. My medication is adjusted perfectly, perfectly, I tell you.

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  1. […] So, while I’ll try to be more conscientious than I’ve been to flag posts over there over here, that’s where you should check in for my stuff — and all the rest as well.  It’s a great place to hang on the nets, and I’m honored and very happy to be sending stuff that way. (I’ve been talking thuggery and Godwin, but if you want to check out a relaxation, politics-free post on good science writing, the Krebs cycle, and how many hydrogen atoms died for this post, check this one out. […]

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