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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

« But Enough About You | Main | Evolution In Action »

May 20, 2007

Little, Big

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Posted by Derek

I became entangled in a discussion - well, OK, argument - in another blog's comment section a few years ago, and the person I was having it out with said something that stopped my fingers cold right on the keyboard. I'm not sure any more how this came up - probably something Platonist about whether physical laws were discovered, or invented - but the comment was made that well, of course these things had to be invented, because "there's only people, and what they do".

I felt as if I had encountered alien life. It would be hard to find a statement further away from what I believe, and I'm pretty sure that being a scientist has something to do with that. I mentioned in that Nature blog interview that when I was a boy I used to spend a lot of time with the microscope and telescope: well, through both of those instruments you can observe a lot of things that have nothing to do with humans at all. It's a useful perspective, and how my sparring partner could have missed experiencing it, I just can't imagine.

I mention this because I've had both instruments out recently. The past few days I've been showing a lot of microscopic life forms to my kids (and using the same microscope I used 35 years ago to do it - it's an old, rock-solid Bausch & Lomb). The rotifers and Vorticella look exactly the way they did when I was ten years old; they've been at it all this time with no help from me. (And does that stream across the road have a lot of Synura in it, or what?)

And at night, I've been taking advantage of some clear skies and lack of moonlight over the last week or ten days, hunting through the shoals of spring galaxies in Virgo and Coma Berenices. They look the same way they did when I was ten, too; nothing less likely to be disturbed by human activity comes to my mind just now.

All this is one of the things I like about science. So much of what we see and study is indifferent to human concerns. In the chemistry lab, I can (and will) do what I can to get a reaction to work, but in the end, the molecules are going to do what they do and they're not going to consult me. That goes at least double for later in the game when compounds are tried out in mice and rats. The moving finger (moving paw?) writes at that point, and there's nothing you can do about it if the experiment was the correct one, done correctly.

All this takes you down a peg, which isn't a bad thing. People get rather inflated views of themselves, their ideas, and the importance of both. M100 and the rotifers don't care. (And to show this whole post can be served up in light verse, let me recommend "Canopus"!)

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


COMMENTS

1. SNP on May 20, 2007 11:14 PM writes...

All this takes you down a peg, which isn't a bad thing. People get rather inflated views of themselves, their ideas, and the importance of both.

I think a somewhat related point is why the vast majority of scientists are uninterested in "skeptics". Research is such a humbling thing -- if my PCR only works on Tuesdays and Fridays, who's to say there aren't ghosts? And there are so many fascinating things that *are* out there that obsessing about what doesn't exist doesn't seem like an appealing activity.

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2. daen on May 21, 2007 8:05 AM writes...

So much of what we see and study is indifferent to human concerns ... M100 and the rotifers don't care.

Absolutely true. On the other hand, we know of no other species that is either interested in or capable of examining the spectral lines of the light from M100 and the genes of rotifers and their kith and kin, and hence drawing the frankly stunning conclusions about the nature of things that humankind has. What mechanisms conspire to produce such a curious species in an indifferent universe?

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3. eugene on May 21, 2007 8:12 AM writes...

"If a bear falls in the woods and there is no one..." wait, I think that was a tree. "Do trees fall in the woods?"

Well, at least we know one thing. Bears can't appreciate my humor. Humans on the other hand, maybe might.

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4. Dave L on May 21, 2007 9:47 AM writes...

I agree there's a whole universe out there that we humans only discover. However, some philosophers want to say that essentially things only exist because we observe them. In fact, theoretical physics contains some of this notion in the idea of superposition of states, e.g. electron spin exists in both states until we observe one state, which causes the paired electron's state to collapse into the other opposite spin state. Einstein had a famous "Gedanken" or "thought"-experiment that "proved" this hypothesis.

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5. tom bartlett on May 21, 2007 10:37 AM writes...

"However, some philosophers want to say that essentially things only exist because we observe them"

Didn't Penrose (yes, THAT Penrose) suggest that consciousness and Schrodinger's cat may have something to talk about?

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6. Sigivald on May 21, 2007 1:58 PM writes...

Dave: That's not exactly a universal interpretation of superposition; especially since "observation" in that context is not the same as conscious observation.

"Bouncing a photon off it" counts as "observation" in that context, at least if one is not a multiple-worlds interpretationist (Thusly, especially in quantum cryptography. )

I think it's important to remember that philosophers are almost always wrong. (I'm only slightly kidding, and I say this as someone who got his BA in Philosophy.)

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7. Phil-Z on May 21, 2007 3:12 PM writes...

This is off topic, but will you be commenting on the early retirement of Pfizers head of R&D, John LaMatina?

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8. finance guy on May 21, 2007 4:00 PM writes...

I have a similar view of the world. We humans are far too egotistical for our own good. It seems somewhat ironic to me that many of my most fundamentally religious friends state that the world was obviously made for man by God because we are the only creature that can reason. So reason is God made us the caretaker of the world, but reason should be dispelled if it contradicts our religion. The fact that a fruit fly and human DNA are 90% common gives me reason to believe that evolution has some facts going its way, while Eden seems a little fanciful. Sorry, but I am writing from the Bible Belt. By the way, did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?

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9. Wavefunction on May 21, 2007 4:30 PM writes...

Well, as Edward O. Wilson said, "Nature is what existed before man appeared on the scene". A sarcastic, true, and profound statement.

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10. Wavefunction on May 21, 2007 4:31 PM writes...

Well, as Edward O. Wilson said, "Nature is what existed before man appeared on the scene". A sarcastic, true, and profound statement.

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11. David on May 21, 2007 6:53 PM writes...

What about this?
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/sp07/newtheory-lanza.html

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12. tom bartlett on May 21, 2007 10:42 PM writes...

""Bouncing a photon off it" counts as "observation" in that context"

Sigivald, I 've taken some philosophy, too, and some quantum mechanics as well, though I make no claim that I have a good understanding of either. My personal inclination is towards dialectic monism, but I have no evidence for that over the purely mechanical world most of us scientists probably favor.

http://wikipedia.cas.ilstu.edu/index.php/Dialectical_monism

Permalink to Comment

13. daen on May 22, 2007 10:08 AM writes...

David: Lanza's representation of the implications of Bell's work is a bit suspect. Non-locality does not imply causal violation. Although two particles' (eg electrons) states might be entangled, a measurement of spin-up on one electron only tells you that the other has spin-down - precisely the same as knowing that the coin you just tossed came up heads, so the other side is tails. Alternatively, for quantum teleportation to be used to transmit useful information, a classical communication channel is required with corresponding General Relativitistic limits.

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14. Anonymous on May 23, 2007 2:07 AM writes...

It's entirely reasonable to believe that the universe, or reality as we know it, functions independently of us human beings and to still believe that physical laws are human inventions, not discoveries. Newton's theory of gravitation was satisfactory in explaining the behaviour of planets, stars, and moving objects until Einstein came along and showed that, for things that were not observable at a scale not understandable to Newton or most human beings (e.g., objects moving near the speed of light, the influence of gravity on light), Newtonian physics was inadequate. As natural phenomena become better understood, natural "laws," as decribed by human beings, become revised and refined. If one looks at areas of science such as cosmology, there appears to be a willingness to accept that the laws governing the universe were not always consistent or as we know them to be now (e.g., the idea that the universe underwent a period of rapid "inflation" early in its existence).

I'm not sure if I'm making my point clearly, but it can be argued, in a philosophical sense, that the "laws" of science are, in fact, human inventions. I won't deny, however, that the universe around us follows rules. It's just that our understanding of those rules becomes more refined. As well, it appears that our assumptions that those rules were always consistent at all times throughout the history of the universe, or that they are consistent throughout all parts of the universe, may not necessarily be true.

Leaving all that aside, there is a quotation from the American author Stephen Crane, that I have found relevant in all sorts of areas and that may be relevant here: "A man said to the universe, 'Sir, I exist.' 'However,' replied the universe, 'that fact does not create in me any sense of obligation.'"

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15. gordon on May 31, 2007 11:00 AM writes...

"David: Lanza's representation of the implications of Bell's work is a bit suspect. Non-locality does not imply causal violation. Although two particles' (eg electrons) states might be entangled, a measurement of spin-up on one electron only tells you that the other has spin-down - precisely the same as knowing that the coin you just tossed came up heads, so the other side is tails."
It is not as simple as that because if it were there would be no need for quantum mechanics, ordinary classical mechanics would suffice.
In the quantum world particles do not have states and the assumption that they do leads to contradiction with observation!

Permalink to Comment

16. daen on May 31, 2007 4:40 PM writes...

gordon: Quantum systems certainly do have states. A quantum state consists of a superposition of a set of eigenstates, comprising the wavefunction of the quantum system. When a measurement is performed on the quantum system, the wavefunction collapses randomly to one of the eigenstates. For a quantum system consisting of two particles whose states are entangled and, say, mutually excusive (ie 2 eigenstates m and n), a measurement on one particle and the subsequent collapse of its wavefunction to, say, eigenstate m (or n), leads to the other particle's wavefunction collapsing to eigenstate n (or m), with a 50:50 probability of m or n, hence my heads:tails analogy.

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