Friday, December 24, 2004

Cassini-Huygens Leads to Discovery;
Difference Between Fonks and Gonks

artist's concept of CassiniThe Cassini space probe is set to release a daughter probe, Huygens, sometime today.  Cassini is the craft that has been providing us with pictures of Saturn, its rings, and moons.  Cassini was named after an astronomer, although I am not sure which one; Wikipedia informs us that there were four astronomers named Cassini.  The elder Cassini seems to have been the most influential, so I suspect that the probe was named after him.

The eldest, Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini, discovered the Great Red Spot.  He also figured out how to use the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter as an -- admittedly unwieldy -- kind of clock. 

Huygens also was an astronomer.  (He was mentioned in Neal Stephenson's inspiring novel, Quicksilver, which is what drew my attention to this whole thing.)  If you want to look him up, be advised that his surname also can be spelled Hugens, or Huyghens.  Cristian Huygens discovered the mathematical properties of the rings of Saturn, and observed the moons of Saturn.  Like Cassini, he was interested in timekeeping.  Among his many important works was Horologium Oscillatorium, a book in which he described the motion of the pendulum.  This led to the development of the first clock that was accurate enough, and sufficiently precise, for scientific work. 

The development of a clock that was accurate, precise, and practical, was necessary for the progress of Science. 

Cassini and Huygens were important astronomers, and now have been honored by having an important space probe named for them.  One could argue, though, that their contributions to the measurement of time were more important than their contributions to astronomy.  The ability to measure time properly has had an impact on all areas of human endeavor.

During Huygens' and Cassini's lives (the 17th century), persons such as them were called "natural philosophers."  That is because empiricism, as we know it today, was not possible until time could be measured in a manner that was both true and replicable.  Now that it is possible to measure distance, time, mass, and energy, we call such persons "scientists."  It is the capacity for, and the insistence upon, the use of replicable observations that distinguishes the scientist from normal people.  The social abnormality of scientists sometimes is signified by the use of the term "geek," as in the phrase: "it's all geek to me."

There still are natural philosophers, such as astrologers; for the most part, though, persons interested in the study of natural phenomena are scientists.  The reason for this is simple: empiricism gets better results.  The results may be less popular, and less palatable, than those obtained via natural philosophy, but they tend to be more useful. 

Over the past 400 years, many fields of inquiry have undergone similar transformations.  Medicine, for example, is now more of a science than an art.  For an interesting aside, pertaining to the interdependency between biology and mathematics, see the  article in the open-access journal, PLoS Biology, Mathematics Is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better.
Cohen JE (2004) Mathematics Is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better. PLoS Biol 2(12): e439.

Although mathematics has long been intertwined with the biological sciences, an explosive synergy between biology and mathematics seems poised to enrich and extend both fields greatly in the coming decades (Levin 1992; Murray 1993; Jungck 1997; Hastings et al. 2003; Palmer et al. 2003; Hastings and Palmer 2003). Biology will increasingly stimulate the creation of qualitatively new realms of mathematics. Why? In biology, ensemble properties emerge at each level of organization from the interactions of heterogeneous biological units at that level and at lower and higher levels of organization (larger and smaller physical scales, faster and slower temporal scales). New mathematics will be required to cope with these ensemble properties and with the heterogeneity of the biological units that compose ensembles at each level.

The discovery of the microscope in the late 17th century caused a revolution in biology by revealing otherwise invisible and previously unsuspected worlds. Western cosmology from classical times through the end of the Renaissance envisioned a system with three types of spheres: the sphere of man, exemplified by his imperfectly round head; the sphere of the world, exemplified by the imperfectly spherical earth; and the eight perfect spheres of the universe, in which the seven (then known) planets moved and the outer stars were fixed (Nicolson 1960). The discovery of a microbial world too small to be seen by the naked eye challenged the completeness of this cosmology and unequivocally demonstrated the existence of living creatures unknown to the Scriptures of Old World religions.

Mathematics broadly interpreted is a more general microscope. It can reveal otherwise invisible worlds in all kinds of data, not only optical. [...]

Copyright: © 2004 Joel E. Cohen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Ok, fine.  Geeks have their telescopes, microscopes, clocks, and space probes.  Inquiry into natural phenomena has made great progress in 400 years.  But what about politics?  We now refer to the study of politics as "political science," but has this area of inquiry progressed as much as astronomy, biology, and mathematics?

Linguistics suggests that it has.  After all, scientists are geeks; political scientists are wonks.  The fact that both groups have acquired catchy nicknames suggests that they have acquired similar status. 

There is an important difference, however.  Most of those who study natural phenomena have made the progression from natural philosophy to geekdom, although there still are stragglers.  The stragglers are few in number, and generally have neither much respect, nor much influence.  Within the field of political science, it appears that there are two distinct coalitions: the reality-based coalition, and the faith-based coalition. 

Unlike the the highly asymmetrical division between natural philosophers and scientists, the division between the faith-based coalition and the reality-based coalition is much more even.  At times, the (primordial) faith-based coalition actually is stronger, as incredible as that may seem.  They even have been known to make statements such as "I don't read newspapers," or "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality," or "I don't pay attention to polls."  Imagine an astronomer saying "I don't care how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun," or a biologist saying "I don't care how often spontaneous mutations arise in mitochondrial DNA,"  or a physicist saying  "Particle? Wave? Who cares?  I create my own reality."
Without a Doubt
October 17, 2004

Forty democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a story, a story about the president. ''I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,'' he began, ''and I was telling the president of my many concerns'' -- concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. '''Mr. President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?'''

Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. ''My instincts,'' he said. ''My instincts.''
Cassini-Huygens is sending data back to Earth.  Geeks will analyze the data and generate new hypotheses and theories.  More importantly, they will check their old theories against the new facts.  It the facts don't fit the theories, the geeks will do more work, hold more conferences, and submit papers to peer-reviewed journals.  After all, the theories must fit the observations.

Meanwhile, wonks will collect information from news sources, polls, and each other.  But then, they will divide into two camps.  One camp will modify the data to fit their theories, or as they call them, their "instincts."  They are the faith-based coalition (FB-Wonks, or Fonks for short).  The other camp will modify their theories to fit the data.  They are the geek-wonks (Gonks): those wonks who have followed the example set by the geeks, and have successfully made it out of the 17th century, into the 21st.

Somebody needs to invent a clock for the fonks.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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