Monday, April 19, 2021

To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

Write about what you know. Write from your experience. Those two mandates are easily given to anyone who wants to write for a living. They apply to fiction and non-fiction. The rules were too easily ignored by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg 

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg (HarperCollins, 2015) presents—and I believe, proves—the thesis that science was not invented, but exists independent of the observer. In my words, not his, science is as objective as helium or an elephant: it is what it is for any observer. Although science is a very human pursuit, it would be the same for a practitioner in another galaxy. Dr. Weinberg asserts that modern science had to be discovered. It was not practiced in Ancient Greece, the Islamic Middle East, China, or Medieval Europe. The essence of modern science is the controlled (and therefore “unnatural”) experiment. 

To Explain the World is Dr. Weinberg’s personal review of Western intellectual history. I had several classes in it at university and it remained a pursuit integral to my own lifestyles. So, I had a firm foundation from which to take issue with many of his assertions. However, someone who comes to this book without prior learning will be given some clich├ęs, now abandoned by historians at his level. Some claims are just plain false, though they come well-attributed by second-hand sources. For one thing, Steven Weinberg admits to not reading Greek, though he seems to know Latin well. So, the review of the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks is based on the usual English translations. 

Weinberg knows science. His Nobel prize attests to that, though his degrees and research seem to be enough. Where he is weak is in history. This is his view, his interpretation. I accept the thesis. I am forced to reject some of the evidence. Also, oddly enough, he is less than perfectly clear on just what science is. Very much like a university textbook, he just assumes that you know the scientific method, though he never defines it and certainly does not investigate how its procedures were integrated into the modern practice we know. (My overview of "The Scientific Method" is here.)


In science, we might accept authority, but we never take anything on faith, and Prof. Weinberg is a teacher. So, this book delivers a special value in the Technical Notes at the end. There, you will find proofs and elaborations of the mathematics, astronomy, and physics supporting the narratives.

Where he goes astray is in the history. The book is replete with small errors of fact. “If Archimedes by his measurement of specific gravity had identified a gilded lead crown as being made of solid gold, he would have become unpopular in Syracuse.” (page 41) The crown was not gilded. If that were the suspicion, just cutting into it would have revealed the lead core. We know hundreds if not thousands of just such false coins from the ancient world. No, the crown was an alloy of silver and gold. The jeweler removed some gold and replaced it with silver. Visibly, the crown looked like pure gold. Only the test of specific gravity betrayed the culprit. It seemed to me to be the salient point, not to be missed or confused by a practicing physicist. Moreover, the book was read through by several others, including historian of astronomy, Owen Gingerich. Someone should have caught it.

Weinberg accepts the common narrative that the ancient Greeks, especially the Athenians, did not value labor and therefore did not perform experiments. Weinberg quotes Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Hard-handed men, who work now in Athens, and never yet labor’d with their minds.” (page 34) He could have looked closer to the source. “Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; when the question is one of shipbuilding, then the ship-wrights; and the like of other arts which they think capable of being taught and learned. And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh and hoot at him, until either he is clamoured down and retires of himself; or if he persist, he is dragged away or put out by the constables at the command of the prytanes." -- Plato's Dialogues, "Protagoras," translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Weinberg notes that more investigations that we recognize as science were carried out in the Hellenistic era, than in the classical. That is true. Supporting his claim he offers the work of Philo of Byzantium (280-220 BCE), Mechanike Syntaxis, in which an experiment in hydrostatics demonstrates that air is a substance. However, readers or viewers of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos learned that in the classical era Empedocles of Akragas explained the action of a kitchen tool, the water-thief (clepsydra), 200 years earlier. 

Taking common easy claims in lieu of research into ancient history, Weinberg says that the Greeks named the planets Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Zeus, and Cronos. (page 77) .They did not. Very many sources, including the works of Otto Neugebauer, correctly identify the ancient Greek names Stilbon, Eosphoros/Hesperos, Pyroeis, Phaetho, and Phainon: Sparkler, Dawn-bringer/Evening, Fiery, Shining, and Blazing. Giving them names analogous to the Roman gods happened much later. Note, also, relevant to ancient astronomy, that the morning star and evening star were only correctly identified much later (by the time of Claudius Ptolemy) and properly identified with the planets Venus and Mercury depending on their relative positions. 

Similar errors mar the history of science in the European Middle Ages. At the start of Chapter 10 Medieval Europe, the seven liberal arts are listed as “grammar, logic, rhetoric, geography, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.” (page 124). Later, geometry is correctly placed among them to replace geography. Even as Weinberg probably made the mistake in his manuscript—an easy enough mistake if you are writing off the top of your head—someone should have caught it. 


This was a library book. A previous patron penciled very neat corrections to the errors in Greek and Latin. Among the half dozen or so, Philo's work was rendered as Mechanice syntaxism.


Weinberg refers to “… Newton’s own commitment to Unitarian Christianity…” (page 245) In point of fact, Unitarianism was anathema to the Anglican Church, and Newton perjured himself to get and keep his job at Cambridge when he swore to the Anglican confession and Trinitarianism. It is not a moot point. Also, though he cites it as a primary source, Weinberg seems to know Newton’s Principia only second hand. He cites Richard S. Westfall’s Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge 1980) and Chandrasekhar’s Common Reader edition of the Principia. Granted, it is difficult because we do not know geometry at the depth and breadth of Newton's time. We replaced it all with algebra and calculus. (Weinberg makes that point, also.) Even Richard Feynman failed to be able to independently recreate Newton's proof of Kepler's Third Law. (On the blog here.)


At worst, Weinberg’s narratives are as bad as Neil de Grasse Tyson’s. For example, telling of how Galileo rolled marbles off a table to record their path in freefall, Weinberg claims that “… the trajectory is a parabola.” (page 194) It is not. It is an ellipse. We allow college freshmen to assume that the Earth is flat and that gravity vectors point down parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. The math is easier and the approximation is close enough. 

The Wonders of Physics: an Introduction to the Physical World 
by Irving Adler  ( Illus. by Cornelius De Witt);
New York: Golden Press [1966].

However, as Weinberg says later: “Halley asked Newton what would be the actual shape of the orbit of a body moving under the influence of a force that decreases with the inverse square of the distance. Newton answered that the orbit would be an ellipse, and promised to send a proof.” (231) Again, this is not exactly true. The path is a conic section—circle, ellipse, parabola, hyperbola, line—depending on the tangential velocity of the object relative to the central force of the ponderable body at the focus. That eccentricity defines the shape of the curve. When you toss a baseball, the path is the same as it would be if you were 13,000 km from an extremely small object with the same mass as the Earth. Throw it faster and faster again and the path becomes a parabola, and then a hyperbola. Impel it extremely fast along any vector except directly at the center of mass and it will zoom off in a straight line, never to return.
Basically, Weinberg’s personal views aside, his editors at HarperCollins failed him. That being so, the thesis stands proved as asserted. However insightful were Democritus or Walter de Merton in teasing out the truths of motion in particular and the physical world in general, their work was not science. Science was a modern discovery. Consequential to that discovery was understanding the distinction between description and explanation. Unfortunately, Weinberg does not say more on that point, even though it is in the title of the book.


It is a whole lot easier to criticize than to create. In Fahrenheit 451, in explaining why he is attracted to reading, the fireman Montag says that inside each book is a man. This book was interesting and informative not because of the traps hidden by the putative histories, but for the opportunity to spend time with Steven Weinberg and to understand his view of his practice of his science.




Copernicus on the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies 

De Magnete by William Gilbert 

Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow 

Harriman’s Logical Leap Almost Makes It 



Sunday, April 18, 2021

Liza Mundy Breaks the Code and Misses the Message

Write about what you know. Write from your experience. Those two mandates are easily given to anyone who wants to write for a living. They apply to fiction and non-fiction. The rules were too easily ignored by Liza Mundy. Granting that Liza Mundy recorded well what people told her, it is obvious that before she wrote this book, she knew nothing about codes, the military, or World War II. 

 Languages change. I was born in 1949 and in my first grade classroom one of our phonics charts spelled waggon in the old British style, just as Abraham Lincoln wrote shew for show. I mention that because on page 112, Mundy says that Ruth Weston was “olive complected” and I learned “complected” to be regional American dialect and not proper American English. Whatevs.

Code Girls by Liza Mundy 
(Hatchette 2017)
More consequentially, Mundy does not understand why military people salute each other, who salutes whom, and the differences in rules for the customs and courtesies as followed by the Army versus the Navy. She says: “… but Bea Norman felt the Marines guarding each room ‘took pernicious pleasure’ in making the women salute over and over.” (page 169) 

But she also notes later that by the rules, as officers, the WAVES were entitled to salutes from enlisted men (page 191). They would be entitled to the courtesy from all enlisted personnel, regardless of sex, but that aside, the Marines may have been pushing some regulations. One fine point is that by Navy customs, you only salute the first time you see an officer because on board a ship you will see her a hundred times a day. Sailors and Marines would all be waving their arms all the time and in confined spaces. Also, unlike the Army, the Navy does not salute again after coming on deck (or inside a building). That being as it may, the bottom line is easy: If someone salutes you, you return the salute; it is that simple. But clearly, the salient facts are not military customs and courtesies but how many insults and injuries Mundy could find to curry sympathy for the women in the story. 

The irony compounds because in the Index, the women are listed by their married names despite the fact that we worked with them for three, four, or five years when they were single. Among the many people buried in the Index was Genevieve Grotjan who was instrumental in breaking the Japanese Purple cipher. After we follow her work as a cryptanalyst for five years, she is listed as Feinstein, Genevieve Grotjan because she got married on page 344.


The English and Americans broke the Enigma cipher machine in part because an early version of  a cracking machine was delivered to British intelligence by Polish intelligence agents after the German invasion. It was called a “bombe” or sometimes “bomba.” Mundy does not say this, but one story had it named after a chocolate cake because that was what the Polish mathematicians were eating at a restaurant when they outlined their theoretical solution to the German cipher back in 1932. Anyway, on page 135, it appears as a “bomby”—gratefully just that one time. It is an example of the many empty files in Mundy’s knowledge warehouse. 


Mundy says three times that making codes is “the best possible training for learning how to break them.” (page 75) That is not true. It is true that learning the history and application of codes and ciphers is basic to cryptology. But making up arithmetic problems will not teach you how to solve them. The fact is that experts break the codes and ciphers of amateurs specifically because tyros are inept at cracking. Mundy had never done the work herself. This was all new to her. 


So was World War II. We all commonly see this as the three Allied powers against the three Axis powers. We also accept the USSR as our ally and still consider the French to have been in “the free world” (page 308) even though French reactionaries had spent four years helping the Germans to round up Jews. Mundy never questions it, even in the context of a war in which the British and American intelligence groups did not always trust each other. As a recent ally of Germany, the USSR was never to be trusted. She mentions the America First movement only in passing. Therefore, Mundy does not explore the motivations of the women who asserted themselves to join the civilian government defense efforts before Pearl Harbor. 


I accept as an assumption that Mundy is not comfortable with firearms and she has never flown an airplane. So, she quickly passes over the firearms qualifications that several women earned, among them Louise Pearsall, (page 273), and Fran Steen (page 191) who also earned a private pilot certification while working as a cryptanalyst (page 191). The author just does not appreciate those accomplishments.


Unlike the reviewers for the mainstream media I spent two weeks with this book. Despite the many reasons to put post-its on pages, this was not painful. Mundy writes well. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that among the cryptanalysts were philosopher William Van Orman Quine, actor Tony Randall, classicist Richmond A. Lattimore, and contract bridge mavin Oswald Jacoby (page 181). It was also interesting to get the backstory on William Friedman. I always accepted his being the master cryptanalyst who singlehandedly broke Purple. In fact, Mundy says (and my wife concurs) that Elizabeth was the brains. She introduced him to crypto. And, of course, this book is the story of the women who really broke Purple. So, there is a lot here. 


But the untold story of the Code Girls was always hidden in plain sight. In 1996, when I was working for the US DoD back home in Cleveland, Nida Glick, my mother’s Latin teacher (who had been the language department chair when I went to the same high school), passed away. Her obituary in the May 6 Plain Dealer showed her in her Coast Guard uniform from World War II when she served as a codebreaker. 


Mundy’s experience with Politico, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, and her work on behalf of Michelle Obama reflect her engaging and compelling narrative style. However, pop culture books and magazines are different from history books. I know from personal experience that as painful as it can be, a newspaper can always print a correction or even a retraction. With books, the errors and omissions are more permanent and revealing. 

Also, even if the New York Times and Kirkus were not pre-disposed to ladle praise on this work, the fact is that professional reviewers also bang out copy on deadlines. So, fact checking is not always possible, even if it is wanted by the editors.


Historians labor under a special conflict of norms different from the other sciences. (My Marxist professors easily convinced me that history is a science.) If a historian judges the people of the past by the standards of the present, no one looks good. If you accept the cultural standards of another time and place, then you fail to be objective. In anthropology that is called the error of going native. 


Mundy acknowledges that many of these women were born in or around 1920 when American society was changing. The social revolutions in norms of behavior were more dramatic than the material progress of the 19th century. These women left their old world in 1940 and then left it behind irretrievably in 1945. Some did well. Ann Caracristi became the first woman deputy director of the NSA. After years of peak experience, and then dumped into an environment where the only pressure was to conform, others suffered the same PTSD as other combat veterans and never reintegrated completely to civilian life. Some took the hard road down. Others recovered. It is a complex story and Mundy tells it well enough.



The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson 

Codes and Coins 

A Successful Imitation of Alan Turing 

2nd Lt Frances Slanger: American Nightingale 

World War II Sweetheart Dance 

The Wise Men 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Amateur Astrophotography is Baloney

“Are visual observers a dying breed?” is a topic on The Sky Searchers discussion board. It does not refer to the book The Last Stargazers by Emely Levesque but to the trend among amateurs to invest in cameras and software for capturing and processing images. The work also requires a special telescope—now very common—generally a larger objective eight to 14 inches (200 to 350 mm) with an equatorial mount with a tracking motor to keep the instrument aligned to the target for hours. Some astrophotography (AP) enthusiasts use traditional 35 mm digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras though charge coupled devices (CCD) and single-chip cameras are also common. Then, there is the post-processing. After the computerized (or computer controlled) camera snaps hundreds of long exposures (one to three minutes each), the images are “stacked” in software. Then the images also are manipulated with color filters to create a pleasing depiction of the object. To me, that is art, not science.

They decide in advance what they want for the product and they manipulate the data to achieve the effects they desire.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results was a humor magazine for scientists. Launched as a mimeographed samizdat in 1955, it remained popular for over 45 years. “A Drastic Cost Saving Approach to Using Your Neighbor’s Electron Microscope” by Aalbert Heine offered a photomicrograph that was captioned “Fig. 1: A eutectic mixture of quartz and plagioclase … Fig. 2: A cross section through the skin of a peripatus … Fig. 3: The surface of a root hair of a quadruploid species of crabgrass. … Fig. 4: Fragment of a hickory ax handle. …” 

And, so too, could these pretty pictures be almost any kind of target. Without spectroscopic data—or even right ascension, declination, and local time—the reader, reviewer, or following researcher has no way to gauge the validity of the data. And, more to the point, no objective way to reproduce it. These are irreproducible results. 

Interpretations of the Rosette Nebula (Caldwell 49)

I do believe that photography is a powerful tool for the science of astronomy. On the same amateur discussion boards, some observers will post a snapshot along with their narrative. The photograph is a valid record. Early in its development spectroscopy came to depend on photography to provide the primary record. Photographic records of spectra have been replaced by digitized data, but analog images of the spectral lines remain important and valuable. 

The stars are pretty at any magnification.

On that basis, I just signed up for a class in astrophotography. As an observer without AP equipment, I paid the same price as the other client learners who will be bringing their gear to the night of classroom training (virtual), the night of observing at the Austin Astronomical Society dark sky site, and the follow-up class in post-processing. The cost was $250. By comparison, I also paid $130 for a class in astrophysics in order to learn the vocabulary and concepts of astronomy for my volunteer work as an editor with the American Astronomical Society.




Emily Levesque and The Last Stargazers 

Is Physics a Science? 

Backyard Astronomy 

Turn Left at Orion 

Redshift: Six Years with Amateur Astronomy 

The Perfect Machine