23 July 2008

What scientific discovery feels like (and music, at the end)

Hello -

If you enjoy science, engineering, or the history of science, you might check out Alan Lightman's The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs of 20th-Century Science. It's a paperback - got mine at Barnes & Noble. It's an unusual compendium of 22 discoveries chosen by Lightman, a professor at MIT, with the help of his colleagues. Unlike most watered-down science books for the popular audience, Lightman chooses to pair an intermediate-level discussion of each discovery with a reprint of the actual journal article (or two) that announced the finding.

As he explains, "There came a moment, in the spring of 2002, when I had finally gathered together the twenty-five papers that I would include in this book. I was home, in my house in Concord, and the golden forsythia were just starting to bloom. For six months I had been badgering astronomers, physicists, chemists, and biologists for nominations of the greatest discoveries in their fields in the twentieth century. The original publication of the theory of relativity. The first quantum model of the atom. The discovery of how nerves communicate with each other, the discovery of the first human hormone. [ ... ] I held the stack of twenty-five papers in my arms, a century of scientific thought. My eyes filled with tears."

I have mixed feelings about the book, but I do think it succeeded in expressing the joys of discovery. Of discovering things so far out on the edge of knowledge that they would change the course of how subsequent generations would consider topics as fundamental as light, time, and genetics. In my opinion, Lightman, with degrees from Princeton and CalTech, could in some places have done a slightly better job explaining the science. But that didn't detract from its theme of human achievement.

I've never known the feeling of discovery, of noticing or figuring out some primary element of nature. I've experienced the act of invention several times, though, a rare coming-together of elements in a new way, usually viewed through some funky angle. This book makes me want to experience invention again soon. The book makes me jealous, somehow, of these people with their careful star-measurements, their crystallography, their inverting those assumptions which are so basic as to have escaped everyone else of being assumptions in the first place.

It's also a "kick in the seat of the pants." Sure, 100 years of discovery are packed into an inch-thick book, as if Nobel Prizes are handed out like carnival favors, so I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But it's a reminder what people can achieve if they structure their efforts around a goal that they approach methodically and persistently.

So - here it is on Amazon.

Hey, what do you know, the book lets me segue into...

Another six hours in Portland, Maine
Sometimes I work best out of the office, so I threw my computers into two bags with a 2000-page instruction manual for Mathematica, and The Discoveries, which I read over my customary bangers n' colcannon lunch at Bull Feeney's. Several hours flashed by while working on some plots and graphs at Breaking New Grounds. Moved the car, went to a second cafe, and acted on Wubbahed's (and "Ted"'s, and Nathan's) suggestion that I try Duckfat. You gotta look at this menu.

Somehow it became 7 pm, so I popped into Bull Moose - every time I go to Portland, I pick out two CDs. Actual, physical, meatspace, representations-of-bits-in-plastic CDs. Radiohead's "OK Computer" [iTunes] and Squarepusher's "Hello Everything" [iTunes] I went into it genuinely wanting to enjoy both CDs, but let's say the effort's been a little more cerebral than I had hoped. Not to offend 90% of the music-listening universe, but this first experience with Radiohead sort of hits me as an excellent rhythm section with the rambly moanings of a lead singer who sounds like he had his lunch money stolen too many times. (I admit, I enjoy it a lot more after I read the lyrics. I couldn't tease out a single word without them.)

As for Squarepusher, wow!, that is one talented musician. It's an acid / jazz / electronica thing, over a frenetic drum and bass background.

"Drum and bass" you say? Yeah, electronic music in which this phrase plays at 2 zillion bpm. Here, you can hear the "Amen Break," the sample which it's derived from.

Aw, yeah. It's those third and fourth measures that gitcha'. (Click the picture if it isn't all showing.)

The rainy drive home had one of those infrequent moments of "radio synchronicity," you know, where you listen to one great song (AC/DC, "Back in Black"), and you change the station and it's another one (The Who, "Who Are You?"), and you enjoy that all the way through, and when you switch back, it's yet another (The Who, "Love Reign O'er Me"). I sound like the grumpy old-man Muppets when I say this, but most of the bands of today just don't have it like the older guys did.

Enough from me... but hey, I got some science in there, right?


ps (sigh) now I am thinking about music again.

Let's see. DJ QBert with some crazy vinyl drum "sample" action:

Some actual DRUMMING (Joe Morello):

Here's some DJ Shadow showing you another way how the sample-playback can be done.

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