Thursday Throughput for 5/23/19


Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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13 Responses

  1. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    [ThTh2] “it’s ridiculous to think that ancient people couldn’t figure out how to do incredibly complex things just because we can’t.”

    Ptolemaic Epicycles, for example, were marvels of mathematical complexity; they were able to accurately describe when and where planets would appear, how they’d move across the sky, and (given a lot of correction factors) even predict how those things would change in future times, and this was all assuming that the entire universe was centered on the earth and everything rotated around it.

    I mean, they were horrendously complicated, and they absolutely would not have been able to handle later planet discoveries, but they *did* work, and they were the product of terrifyingly intelligent people thinking very hard about a problem. People talk as though resistance to heliocentrism was the product of ignorance, but it wasn’t, really; it was the product of smart people thinking they’d figured out the situation — and having the math to back up that thinking.

    I mean, geocentrism is kinda more like dark matter than it is anything religious — maybe four hundred years from now everyone’ll be laughing at those idiots in the 2000s who thought that you could get weird magic matter that didn’t interact except by gravity, and they had to invent it because they had a totally wrong idea about the nature of the universe, but that doesn’t mean the people talking about dark matter right now are stupid.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      We often figure out ways to predict things accurately long before we figure the why or how. Just look at structural mechanics. We had the math to build complex things long before we had the microscopes that exposed to us why the math worked.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        That’s not actually my point at all.

        My point is that people assume that A: pre-modern humans were all idiots and B: that’s why geocentrism hung on for so long, and my answer to that is A: no they absolutely were not and B: geocentrism hanging on for long is a result of them not being idiots.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          That’s sort of what I was talking about in another thread, where living in a world without modern technology actually demands a higher level of skill and intelligence.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            No, it doesn’t, because your average person was not concerned with trying to work out the position of the stars and planets.

            Here is the problem with your ‘ancient people were smarter than modern’: the models they operated under, while clever and useful, were limited. They were not readily adaptable because they were incomplete.

            They were smart, but all the smarts in the world won’t save you if everything you know is based upon flawed assumptions and incomplete knowledge.

            Yes, the farmer or craftsmen had their skills and knowledge, but because such things were either the result of lots of trial and error without any understanding of the underlying physical or biological or chemical principles, when things fell outside of some limited range, they were in trouble. Or they had to over-design things, or had a lot of waste and re-work, etc.

            Modern humans aren’t really any smarter or dumber than ancient humans, we just have better understandings and starting assumptions.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            I would phrase that differently: obtaining the benefits of a lower level of technology across the population broadly requires that more people be competent in that technology.

            Before power looms, there had to be a broader knowledge of how to build looms and how to operate them. Creating a power loom demands a more complex range of skills and knowledge than building a manual loom (emphasis on knowledge). Once power looms exist, the specific skills of how to build and operate a manual loom decline. Power looms open the door for even more technology: shuttle-less power looms are more complex, faster, and more accurate than shuttled looms, and there’s no corresponding manual thing.

            I don’t know — and wouldn’t assert — that we’ve changed the statistical distribution of the sort of intelligence that involves complex systems. I will state that we have built an environment that enables us to take better advantage of the people who fall in the far right-hand tail of that distribution.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      We still use epicycles for planetary predictions, but we call it something like infinite series summation of periodic anomalies. Basically, we’re using something akin to a Fourier transform. After the first four or five terms, it’s amazingly accurate. We use that to figure out where the planet is going to be when our space probe gets there. The probe of course is going to be modeled with a completely different mathematical approach because it only flies the one route.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    [ThTh6] I thought the BBC’s action was more interesting. They have told their staff that the science is settled and it is not necessary to include the denial viewpoint for balance. In effect, they are removing the denial side’s access to a lot of mass media.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      The thing to watch for is where any given media organization draws the line. Are they just shutting out the guys who refuse to acknowledge the climate is changing? Or do they also include the people who admit it’s changing, but are not convinced human action is the driving factor? Or how about the people who are fine blaming human action, but have serious concerns with the various predictions of doom and gloom.


      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Well, the BBC has chosen the IPCC Fifth Assessment as the definitive work on the state of the science. So, change is happening, mostly human-caused, and a specific range of outcomes for atmospheric and oceanic heating, ocean acidification, etc. Implicitly, a certain level of expectation about the sophistication of challenges to the predictions (eg, “Do you have a model? How complex? What sorts of predictions is it making?”)

        Interesting that the latest US National Climate Assessment is a bit more pessimistic than the IPCC. The NCA is a project that Congress started in 1990, funded and structured in such a way that the political appointees don’t get to overrule the science folks on what the report includes.Report

  3. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    [ThTh7] I’m not convinced in the direction of causation. In the U.S., infant mortality rates only dropped after fertility rates had declined.

    Fertility rates dropped by 50% btw/ 1800 (7.04 children per woman) and 1900 (3.56 per woman), with the decline beginning in rural areas. During that same century, just about all health statistics (avg. adult height, life expectancy at birth, life expectancy at age 10) declined from 1800 to 1900. In Massachusetts, which has the best figures, though a healthier region, the infant death rate increased from 118 per k (1857) to 194 per k (1872), and did not return to the earlier level until 1912.

    I think fertility rates dropped with the gradual closing of the frontier, as land became more scarce, child farm labor less valuable and a large middle class formed. Women married later and spaced children further apart, either by natural or assisted means. But the impact of disease worsened in the 19th century and appears to have abated to some extent by chance (TB mutated to a less deadly form, draining land for farming reduced malaria risks), but urbanization during the Gilded age created a public health crisis due to poor sanitation and drinking water.

    Personally, would look to women’s literacy rates as having a more important impact on fertility rates.Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    [ThTh2] It’s noteworthy that most of the structures supposedly built by extraterrestrials were not made by white people. Apparently some people need their monumental architecture explained away more than others.

    Chichen Itza? Aliens!
    Moai? Aliens!
    Colosseum? Italians, of course.

    [ThTh6] The people who as you note have reasonable scientific disagreements about how fast climate change is going or what its likely repercussions will be, or who have differences of opinion regarding the best ways to address it, are unfortunately lumped in with the majority of self-professed “climate skeptics” – who are legitimately described as “science deniers”.

    I think the change of language will be for the best, as it will deny the real science deniers the cover that they’re really in with those folks over there who think subsidies to molten salt nuclear reactor research are a better investment than subsidies to electric vehicle research. Because this is the Guardian, I think there is very little risk that they’re going to call the latter “science deniers”.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    [ThTh1] This story is pretty horrifying. It’s been my privilege now to know several people who are spectrum, some pretty strongly so. I like them, for the much greater part. It is clearly challenging to be the parent of such a person, but they are also have an earnest directness that I personally treasure.

    The youngest such person was about 8 years old, and he came to our kids class for several years. We did have to learn how to serve him well, but we learned, and so did he. I’ve also had an adult student. Knowing he was spectrum really helped to interpret the things he said.

    In short, while it’s challenging, it’s by no means some horrible curse that is to be avoided at all costs.Report