Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anthropically Speaking...

Poor silkworms! I am such a neglectful owner. Yesterday I left them in the kitchen waiting to be cleaned out for much more than an hour and it was all because of this book: '13 Things That Don't Make Sense' by Michael Brooks (courtesy of Profile books).

Chapter 1 starts with a scene that reminded me of the joke 'How many Nobel physicists does it take...' but ' open the dodgy door of an elevator?' rather than the usual 'change a lightbulb'. Their struggle lasted for some time - and it turns out to be an excellent metaphor for their dealings with the nature of the universe.

To be honest, I tend not to take much notice of the idea of 'the universe' most of the time. When I do, I find it equally enthralling and disturbing. Even so, I have heard of 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' but hadn't really realised until reading this book that they were different 'things'. I suppose I'd thought of them as massive black holes - but have learnt reading this chapter that they were originally mathematical contrivances (or fudges) thought up by physicists when discoveries (like the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate) didn't quite fit in with accepted theories.

What comes over very clearly is how little we all know - even Nobel physicists - and how we will probably never know. Each discovery about the universe seems to cause consternation and ideas to shift or even flip over to become something completely different. As Michael Brooks points out, Thomas Kuhn's ideas on the nature of revolution in science have been vindicated quite neatly in this field of cosmology.

Some people, those in the modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) faction, say that maybe all we need to do is modify Newton's ideas on gravity a bit and that will satisfactorily explain just as much. I like this idea.

Then there is another group of physicists that say 'the universe is the way it is because otherwise we wouldn't be able to observe it'. This is the 'anthropic landscape' approach to explaining the nature of the universe - which to me sounds a lot like 'I think therefore I am' - which some chap called René Descartes thought of (with nothing more than a parchment and quill) about 400 years ago. But maybe I'm missing something.

No wonder they were having trouble working out how to get into that lift. It must be hard focusing on something practical if you spend all your days thinking about stuff like this.

That was all in just the first chapter of this book. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking read and I am looking forward to reading the rest - but next time I start I'll make sure I feed my poor silkworms first.

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Blogger Jud said...

Perhaps I have misread, or not read, enough of your previous posts to understand the "why" behind the silk worms.

Is this a hobby? Starting a new pet trend? Research? But to what end?

Just curious.

Thu Jan 22, 04:30:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

A kind of hobby/research combination really, Jud! Silkworms are interesting, don't live very long and you don't have to take them for walks - so an ideal pet for a lazy person, like me.

Thu Jan 22, 04:45:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever since you got these silkworms, Clare, you have been blogging about them assiduously, but I have been faintly worried that they have been therefore a bit neglected as a result. Now I am sure of it. They need a few cuddles! And affirmation of their rights! ;-)

Thu Jan 22, 09:08:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I think you're right, Maxine. Just like those famous Rhesus monkeys, a silkworm doesn't live by mulberry extract alone...

Thu Jan 22, 10:47:00 pm  
Blogger Susanna said...

your silk worms are going to be strong! maybe they will develop stronger threads =)

Fri Jan 23, 03:07:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, excellent thought, Susangalique!

Fri Jan 23, 08:21:00 am  

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