Author Archives: Josh Witten

There is enough room in this rabbit hole for all of us


From p305 of “The British Miscellany: or, coloured figures of new, rare, or little known animal subjects, etc. vol. I., vol. II” by James Sowerby

The British Library’s Flickr account is a bloody rabbit hole of lovely. And, all the images are being released for free without copyright restrictions*. I won’t guarantee that there is something there for every flavor of nerdery, but, if you don’t find your interests represented by something here, I think you need to seriously question your life choices.

*The British Library does offer you the option to purchase higher-than-screen quality images, which seems like a workable model to me.

The technology to receive HBO in 1989 was predicted a hundred years earlier…from p134 of the “The Conquest of the Moon: a story of the Bayouda” by André Laurie – pseud. [i.e. Paschal Grousset.]

Science Caturday: Kitty Biome, DIY Guide

Dr. Jennifer Gardy provided a step-by-step guide to making science out of cat poop on Twitter, which was subsequently catalogued by our own Michele Banks, guru of Science Cats and Science Scarves (yes, this is a subtle reference to Dr. Gardy wearing an Artologica scarf in the photo series – now rendered unsubtler).


Science for the People: Birth of the Pill [Rebroadcast]

sftpThis Science for the People is exploring the intersection of science, society, and sex with the origin story of the birth control pill. They speak to author Jonathan Eig about his book The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Writer Rose Eveleth also returns to talk about the history and design of the vaginal speculum.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

The hard…is what makes it great

There are a lot of things to love in this piece from Christie Aschwanden about why retractions, studies that don’t hold up to reproduction, and even sub-fraudulent “p-hacking” do not mean that science is broken, but it is, simply, very hard. Among those things are the great visuals from Ritchie King – including a fun “p-hacking” demonstration tool.

For me, the real take home message goes beyond the “science is hard” catchphrase. Science isn’t just hard in the way implied by Tom Hanks’ Jimmy Duggan character in A League of Their Own:

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.

Contrary to the rhetoric that would portray “science is hard” as an endorsement of success over a monumentally difficult task, this is not the point.

As Ashwanden addresses, science is hard because it is messy and complicated and requires a communal effort from members of a species that is only dubiously social outside of relatively narrow local groups.

If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.

There are things like sampling variance and mistakes and uncontrollable environmental variables and resource limits and the fabled “orthologous methods” that inject all sorts of inconsistency and challenges into the textbook scientific method. This is why the great philosophers of science* spoke about disproof rather than proof, about independent reproducibility, about probability rather than certainty.

These issues do not indicate that science is broken. There simply is no other way it could work in the hands of mere humans. What may be broken is the way we perceive science. We need to understand that it is a gradual and a community effort. We need to understand that our mythos of science – of the great, usually in the stories, man performing a great experiment and making a great discovery – are almost always false summaries which are convenient and inspiring, but do not represent why science is truly hard.

*It is also why those who dismiss the philosophy of science as a waste of time – I’m looking at you Neil DeGrasse Tyson – deserve nothing but the most vigorous of side-eyes on that point.

F is for Ferrolic

Ferrolic uses magnets, “Ferro Fluid1“, and the unpredictability/non-intuitive behavior of fluid dynamics2 to tell you the present things like the time in hynoptically beautiful ways.

Because the fluid behaves in an unpredictable way, it is possible to give the bodies, perceived in the Ferrolic display, a strong reference to living creatures. It is this livelihood that enables Ferrolic to show a meaningful narrative such as having the creatures play tag. In addition the natural flow of the material, Ferrolic can be used to form recognisable shapes and written characters. – Ferrolic

1From the Latin words for “iron” and “ewww, that’s damp”.
2Depending on whom you ask.

HT: Rob Beschizza at BoingBoing