Thursday, March 10, 2011

Science is...

This is another one of those posts I started a million years ago before my job hijacked my life.  Sigh.

Fun?  Funny?  Amusing?  More interesting than you'd think if you only had a public school education.

I just finished reading The Science of Harry Potter by Roger Highfield.  I know I've blogged about this book in the past, but I still have more to say.  Growing up with a librarian for a mom, I always forget that I'm actually allowed to write in my own books if I want to.  Which proves to be helpful if I want to take notes. (Somehow, I had no issue writing in my college textbooks, but this was after I was prompted by my English professor, who pointed out that I bought the books to succeed in his class, and if highlighting or whatever helped, what was the problem.  They were my books.)

Anyway, there's a chapter called The Greatest Wizard, and it's all about the Muggle brain.  A subsection called ...and Stop the Movement That Shows the Passing of Time discusses how sometimes when you look at a clock you think that the second hand has stopped moving.  This section discusses how the brain can stretch time because of "the way it edits reality."  What happens is that when you move your eyes to focus on something (in this case, a clock), what should happen is that the new object appears blurry (duh, we've just moved our eyes, so we haven't been looking at it), but then everything would appear blurry every time we moved our eyes, and that's generally not the case.  What happens is that our brains actually cut off our vision while our eyes are moving.  But then, to prevent us from being totally confused by this, it adds back on the time taken to move our eyes.  This actually makes "the image appear earlier than it actually did."  The section goes on to discuss various experiments that prove this, but I was just fascinated by what our brains do so that every time we shift our gaze everything doesn't appear blurry. 

OMG.  In another chapter, There Be Dragons. Really, a subsection, The Basilisk, talks about how evidence of an ancestor of the basilisk was found in the Faiyum Depression in Egypt.  Fossils of Gigantophis were found in areas of what are now Egypt and Libya.  This snake had vertebra that are larger than an anaconda's vertebra.  Unfortunately, (or I suppose fortunately), it seems that this snake did not have the venomous bite of the snake in the Chamber of Secrets, based on they types of venom snakes have today.

In the same chapter, this one sentence amused me: Celts believed that the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, an amazing structure consisting of around 40,000 geometrically shaped basalt columns, was the work of one of Hagrid's relatives.

Chapter 13: The Philosopher's Stone

I'm just going to quote this paragraph.

Thanks to the intervention of Harry and his school chums, however, the Dark Lord does not succeed, joining a long line of individuals, from Chinese rulers to Holy Roman emperors, and many more besides, who have tried,and failed, in the age-old quest to find the elusive stone.  The "philosopher" in question was a natural philosopher, the designation used for a scientist before the latter term was coined in the 1840s by William Whewell, a polymath who was a fellow of the Royal Society in London. (Because the term "philosopher" sounds somewhat dull and worthy, the publisher of the American edition of the first Harry Potter book changed its title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, when in fact, it should have been Harry Potter and the Scientist's Stone.

There's a big long section in this chapter on Hermetism that I'm going to try to sum up, but what was interesting to me was that Nicolas Flamel was a real person, and I quote "'Among the many effects of the Harry Potter phenomenon has been the introduction of a fabled character from the history of chemistry to millions of readers who otherwise would probably have never heard of him,' comments Lawrence Primcipe of Johns Hopkins University, and expert on alchemy."  I had no idea that there even were fabled characters in chemistry.  Back to Hermetism and Nicolas Flamel, Hermetiscism is some sort of semi-religious and quasi-magical set of ideas that forms the basis of alchemy.  Flamel had this book that instructed him on how to turn elements into silver or gold using red or white philosopher's stones.  He traveled around a bit and wrote a couple of books on the subject.  However, his story does not seem to check out.  (Go figure)  Flamel and his wife did exist, but it's unlikely that they actually performed any alchemy.  However, their work influenced other alchemists like Robert Boyle and sir Isaac Newton.  That's still a legacy to me.

However the chapter does state: "Thanks to the transmutations of cosmic alchemy we are all, in effect, made of stardust.  Now that is magic."

And did you know that there's a rare disease called Werner's Syndrome in which people appear to age in adolescence, and usually die before the age of 50?  That's interesting and disturbing.

The next chapter, Belief, Superstition and Magic, was also very interesting to me.  Apparently, our "common sense" that is hard-wired into our brains is actually "common sense for living on the African savanna," and not so much common-sense-for-modern-urban-life.  Somehow, though, I think I'll survive a lot longer in modern life than on the African savanna.  For one thing, I don't like being dirty. 

However, this helps explain our tendency to anthropomorphize.  "In the face of persuasive (if mostly unconscious) uncertainty about what we perceive, we bet on the most meaningful interpretation we can."  Basically, this is why we get spooked at night.  If we're out somewhere and something in the dark might be a mugger or an overflowing garbage bin, it's in our best interest to assume it's a mugger because if we're right, our flight-or-fight instincts will help, and if we're wrong, we just have a little laugh about how silly we are. 

Does anybody else remember imaginary numbers?  I loved imaginary numbers.  I loved that the same group of people who came up with something as tedious and mundane as geometric proofs could also come up with something as strange as the square root of a non-positive real number.  (I realize I'm probably mixing mathematical fields, but whatever.  It all counted the same way on your transcripts.)  And was anybody else ever bothered by pi?  I always thought, why would you divide the circumference of a circle by the diameter and come up with something as random as 3.14159... and think that it's the right answer, even though it works every time?  I mean, why wouldn't you have tried that seven or eight times, and thought, this is a random number, and tried something else?  And then, it really pissed me off that because of this stupid pi, there was no such thing as a "perfect" circle.  You can totally draw a perfect circle with a compass.  I don't see why it's not perfect simply because when you divide it's circumference by it's diameter it comes up to some number that has a never-ending decimal. 

But I have been validated! 

A century ago, it was thought that the power of mathematics was limitless.  Mathematicians, notably David Hilbert, had believed that every question could be resolved and shown to be true or false.  That dream died on November 17, 1930 when a journal called the Monatshefte fur Mathematik und Physik  received a twenty-five page paper written by Kurt Godel, a logician working in Vienna who was the first to demonstrate that certain mathematical statements can neither be proved or disproved.  In effect, Godel showed the inevitability of finding in arithmetic logical paradoxes that are the equivalent of the statement "This statement is unprovable." In other words, if it is provable, it is false, and mathematics is therefore inconsistent.  And if it's unprovable,then it is true and mathematics is incomplete.

I realize that this doesn't specifically say, pi might be wrong, but it also doesn't say, pi is absolutely right. 

Finally, the book concludes that while science is really cool, even if history were to rerun differently, we'd still eventually develop the same scientific models and theories. 

If Newton had not, as Wordsworth put it, voyaged through strange seas of thought alone, someone else would have.  If Marie Curie had not lived, we still would have discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium.  But if J. K. Rowling had not been born, we would never have known about Harry Potter.  That is why Master Potter means so much to me.  Science may be special but Harry, as a work of art, is more so.  Harry Potter is unique. 

Doesn't that just make your eyes well up that you are not the only one who is so moved by art?  As a mild digression, there was a contest to win the Beedle the Bard book way back when there were only was put on by Amazon, and the winner was a girl who wrote a poem about what she was doing in school each year a Harry Potter book came out, and she ended by saying what a great adventure it was and how she had learned all of these things about growing up and friendships and dragons and such, but the best part was, and I'm paraphrasing, growing up with Harry, mostly I learned to read. Yup, I'll confess, I cried.  Okay.  I just found the poem.  Here it is:

Rhiannon D., age 16, Australia

When I was six, he was eleven
I learnt how to be brave.

When I was seven, he was twelve
I learnt to misbehave.

When I was eight, he was thirteen
He taught me how to cry.

When I was nine, he was fourteen
He showed me how to try.

When I was twelve, and he fifteen
He taught me to forgive.

When we were fourteen and sixteen
I learnt what it was to live.

When we were fifteen and seventeen
He showed me he could bleed.

But growing up with Harry taught me, mostly, how to read.

Anyway, for those readers of mine who are still with me in this long post, and who aren't looking for their hanky right now, I've got more!  You can read Rhiannon's blog about the experience here.

So back to the book about which I'm actually supposed to be blogging.  If you skip past the references section, you come to the glossary, which in itself is amusing.

For instance, it explains the spell, densaugeo, which Malfoy uses to make Hermione's teeth grow very fast.  There is a gene that controls tooth growth, and Stanley Cohen administered an extract of this gene to newborn mice and caused their teeth to grow prematurely, but the best part is that in his lecture he called it "precocious tooth eruption."  Somewhat surprisingly to me, when you google that, you get around 200 results.  That's not a whole lot considering it's google, but still, 200 instances of that phrasing!

I am a little confused about the entry on entropy.  I always thought, in a nutshell, entropy stated that in the end, everything will be at rest.  As in, when the sun goes out and we no longer have that to power the earth, eventually, all molecules will stop moving and everything will come to rest.  Of course, we'll be dead by then so it won't matter to us.  However, this book describes entropy as "a quantity which determines a system's capacity to evolve irreversibly in time...loosely speaking, we may also think of entropy as measuring the degree of randomness or disorder in a system."

Moving on to things that are less confusing and way more interesting, there's a field of biology called evolutionary developmental biology that is apparently nicknamed evo devo.  How silly is that?

In discussing dreamless sleep, Shakespeare is quoted, sort of: "To sleep, perchance to experience amygdalocortical activation and prefrontal deactivation?"

And the last thing I'm going to say about this book is regarding Harry's scar.  I think as a kid, you learn that if you pick at that scab on your knee or elbow, it will leave a scar, but I never thought to wonder why.  Why doesn't your skin just grow back normally?  After all, you shed tons of skin cells everyday and they seem to grow back normally.  And apparently, scarring doesn't occur in tissue damage before birth.  I'm not entirely sure how tissue gets damaged before birth, but I think they've discovered ways to do surgeries on fetuses, so that would be one possibility.  I'm going to see if I can translate this long paragraph into something shorter without destroying the science behind it.  When you have a wound proteins migrate into the wound site in an abnormal patterns, which cause disorganized fiber growth, which causes the valleys and ridges that make scarring less smooth than regular skin. 

In conclusion, I'd say this book is very interesting, but because it's about science in general and not a particular field, some parts are going to be more or less interesting than others, depending on your predilections.  However, I clearly enjoyed this book, and because I'm a kind and generous person, I'll send you my copy if you'd like to read it.  The deal is, though, that when you're done you have to pass it on to someone else.

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