A history of precision

James Gleick writes:

Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy.

Simon Winchester, whose The Perfectionists ventures a history of this abstract concept, offers another way of looking at the distinction: a Rolls-Royce automobile, the 1984 Camargue model. In the course of a story filled with wonderful machines of every type, Winchester reveals himself to be something of a Rolls-Royce fanboy, but he declares this one to have been an ugly behemoth:

While the engineers had lovingly made yet another model of a car that enjoyed great precision in every aspect of its manufacture, those who had commissioned and designed and marketed and sold it had no feel for the accuracy of their decisions.

Winchester is a longtime journalist turned author, a meticulous researcher and catholic thinker who has written superb books about The Oxford English Dictionary, the Krakatoa eruption, the birth of modern geology, and (separately) the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Compared with topics like those, precision may seem an odd choice. What does it mean to write a history of so abstract a concept? Where does it even begin? [Continue reading…]

Thinking about emergence

Paul Humphreys writes:

If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex. [Continue reading…]

Bees may understand zero, a concept that took humans millennia to grasp

Kate Keller writes:

As a mathematical concept, the idea of zero is relatively new in human society—and indisputably revolutionary. It’s allowed humans to develop algebra, calculus and Cartesian coordinates; questions about its properties continue to incite mathematical debate today. So it may sound unlikely that bees—complex and community-based insects to be sure, but insects nonetheless—seem to have mastered their own numerical concept of nothingness.

Despite their sesame-seed-sized brains, honey bees have proven themselves the prodigies of the insect world. Researcher has found that they can count up to about four, distinguish abstract patterns, and communicate locations with other bees. Now, Australian scientists have found what may be their most impressive cognitive ability yet: “zero processing,” or the ability to conceptualize nothingness as a numerical value that can be compared with more tangible quantities like one and two.

While seemingly intuitive, the ability to understand zero is actually quite rare across species—and unheard of in invertebrates. In a press release, the authors of a paper published June 8 in the journal Science called species with this ability an “elite club” that consists of species we generally consider quite intelligent, including primates, dolphins and parrots. Even humans haven’t always been in that club: The concept of zero first appeared in India around 458 A.D, and didn’t enter the West until 1200, when Italian mathematician Fibonacci brought it and a host of other Arabic numerals over with him.

But animal cognition researchers at the RMIT University of Melbourne, Monash University in Clayton, Australia and Toulouse University in France had a hunch that honey bees might just be one of the few species able to grasp the concept. Despite the fact that they have fewer than one million neurons in their brain—compared to 86,000 million in a human brain—the team recognized their cognitive potential. [Continue reading…]

Reflective and unreflective atheists

Patrick Freyne writes:

John Gray is a self-described atheist who thinks that prominent advocates of atheism have made non-belief seem intolerant, uninspiring and dull. At the end of the first chapter of his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, he concludes that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

He laughs when I remind him of this sick burn. “I wrote the book partly as a riposte to that kind of atheism,” he says. “There’s not much new in [new atheism] and what is in it is a tired recycled version of forms of atheism that were presented more interestingly in the 19th century. In the so-called new atheism people are [presented with] a binary option between atheism, as if there was only one kind, and religion, as if there was only one kind of religion. [It’s] historically illiterate.

“They don’t even know when they’re repeating ideas from the 19th or early 20th century . . .They don’t know anything of the history of atheism or religion. They’re also very parochial about religion. They take religion to be, not even monotheism or Christianity [but] contemporary American Protestant fundamentalism . . . It’s a parochial, dull debate. I thought of having a subtitle called Why the God Debate is Dead.”

In Seven Types of Atheism, Gray explores the rich philosophical history of non-belief and enlivens it with entertaining tales of humanists like August Comte who so believed in human co-operation he designed clothes that couldn’t be put on without assistance and “god-haters” like the Marquis de Sade whose life was lived in debased defiance of the divine. [Continue reading…]

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On the need for viewpoint diversity