Saturday 30 November 2013

The birth of scientific measurement

Early in 1609 a leading Renaissance explorer, mathematician and natural philosopher turned his recently acquired optical device skywards to study the surface of the Moon. The observations he recorded are the first ever to be made with a technology that could extend the natural resolution of the naked eye. The observer was a relatively little known Englishman called Thomas Harriot (ca 1560 - 1621). Just a few months after Harriot made his observations, the much better known Renasissance natural philosopher Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to look at the surface of the moon and recorded what he saw. Harriot and Galileo were not the first astronomers, but they were the first to show how the naked eye could be definitively outclassed in observational power by an eye that was equipped with a magnifier.  Although measurement per se is thousands of years old, Harriot was the first to use measurement in a distinctively modern and scientific manner. 

Images from HERE

Scientific measurement is defined by the use of specialised instruments that extend our innate human capacity to resolve differences. In the case of the telescopes used by Harriott and Galileo the improved resolution led them to see features on the surface of the moon that simply could never have been seen before by human beings. Improved optical resolution led directly to scientific discovery.

The relationship between scientific measurement and resolution is not just nostalgic and historical, there is an integral connection between the two:
The history of science over the centuries can be written in terms of improvements in resolution... Scientific resolution has increased an average 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 times per century in each of the 4 centuries since Galileo. (Edward Tufte -  Visual Explanations 2003)

The pursuit of resolution drives science on today. The Large Hadron Collider search for Higgs Boson and the Map of the Universe are examples.

Within a matter of months of each other, and completely independently, Thomas Harriot and Galileo began the scientific study of the surface of the moon, more broadly observational astronomy and also scientific measurement. 

Although Harriot has priority over Galileo for this landmark in human history, he did not publish his observations as rapidly, coherently and comprehensively as Galileo did.  Thomas Harriott was known by his contemporaries to be both brilliant and seemingly uninterested in claiming priority for his work, much of which was later re-discovered by others. He left a disorganised but rich legacy of work in optics, astronomy, exploration and mathematics. It is only over the past few decades that a fuller appreciation has developed of the quality of his scientific and mathematical work. 

A taste of more recent scholarly interest in Harriot can be gleaned from the articles and bibliography in the volume edited by Robert Fox Thomas Harriot and His World: Mathematics, Exploration, and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England.

Sunday 24 November 2013


 Image Credit NASA - From HERE

Michael Light is an American photographer who published a book called Full Moon in 1999. Light had obtained permission from NASA to work with the original photographic master negatives from the Moon missions. He created very large digital prints from the images and made a traveling exhibition of them. A selection of the prints are on permanent exhibit at the America Museum of Natural History in New York.

From Lights website:

FULL MOON offers a single composite journey to the Moon and back comprised of imagery from the 9 actual Apollo missions, along with Earth orbital imagery from the Gemini missions.  One of the primary goals of the project was to think about the some 33,000 Apollo images in terms of the traditions and meanings of landscape representation, rather than science, cold-war politics, and exploration alone.

The site is here - FULL MOON

A pocket Map of the Universe

One of my favourite artefacts is the set of pop-out maps made by PopOut products. They have cleverly identified both a need - high resolution spatial data in a pocket friendly format without the need for connectivity or power (i.e. a map) with a way of packaging it into a pocket sized unit.

The company was founded in 1992 - according to the company history:
1992 - Having spotted a need to cure what he calls 'Map Stress Syndrome' after watching numerous tourists around the City of Bath, England, battling with oversized maps, founder Derek Dacey recalls the invaluable miniature charts he used during his days as a commercial pilot. Aiming to bring this level of usability to the city map market, a small team of designers is recruited to realise what would soon become the PopOut.
Here is an example of the PopOut map of London UK showing the cunning folding mechanism that allows the centre of London to be packed into the pocket sized format. Good old fashioned ingenuity, high quality printing, paper and card put to great use. 

Copyright Compass Maps Ltd.

Pretty cool - but not expansive. 

Below is the Mother of all Pocket Maps. Created in 2005 it shows the whole of the known Universe. Moving out from the centre of the Earth in powers of ten multiples of the radius of the Earth (6371 Kilometres). 

 Further details can be found in the paper HERE.

Saturday 23 November 2013

The first recorded observation of the moons surface in 1609

On the evening of July 26th 1609 the Englishman Thomas Harriot made a sketch of the surface of the  moon as he had observed it through a telescope. This was four months before Galileo did the same.

Copyright Lord Egremont, Petworth House Archives HMC 241/9 fol 26. West Sussex Record Office, Chichester

More HERE.

The Face of the Moon

John Russell (1745 –  1806) was an English painter and member of the Royal Academy who specialised in oil and pastel portraits. He was also a gifted amateur astronomer who worked to make an accurate record of the lunar surface he was observing through his telescopes. 

One of Russell's masterpieces is a detailed pastel of the moons surface measuring 5ft that he completed in 1795.

More detail HERE.

Below is one of Russell's observational drawings, from July 10th 1787 (from HERE).

Sunday 17 November 2013

Things exist whole and entire within it...

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was an English engraver who used metal-engraving tools on boxwood that was cut across the grain - a major innovation in how illustrations were printed.

Bewick is best known for his illustrated volumes on the History of British Birds. Along with the main subjects of the book, the birds, Bewick also included numerous tiny and beautifully engraved vignettes which helped pad out the visual space of the pages.
"The crucial point about Bewick's vignettes is that they don't have a defined edge. They're not bounded by a formal rectangle or oval... The image's edge is the edge of a rock, a hill, a bush, a tree. Or sometimes, with a stretch of ground or water or sky, the image just fades out at the margin.
Either way, unlike most pictures, these vignettes lack a window frame. The picture is just an extract. The scene continues off-picture. Not so the vignette. In the vignette, the scene does not lead off-picture. You notice how, in Bewick, things like trees and houses are never half-cutoff by the edge of the image, to suggest that the world goes on. Things exist whole and entire within it".
Tom Lubbock The Independent 15th December 2006 (HERE).

Below, one of Bewick's Vignettes, apparently of Bewick himself, as a thirsty traveler drinking from his hat, drawn and engraved by Bewick (1797) from HERE.

One of the remarkable features of these Vignettes is how small they are - in 1971 the Black Cat Press published a limited edition miniature book containing fifteen vignettes printed from original Bewick blocks on Japanese paper. The book was bound in red Moroccan leather and measured just 66mm x 54mm.

Dynamic projections of 3D onto 2D (or a Bird Ballet)

The French film maker Neels Castillon has made a beautiful short film on the movements of thousands of starlings in the evening in the skies around Marseille.

The film is a series of images of a complex and dynamic three dimensional structure - the flock of individually moving starlings - projected onto a two dimensional plane - the CCD chip of the (mainly) stationary video camera.

Below is a set of stills from the video and below that the original film.

All images Copyright N. Castillion.

More background on the animal behaviour studies around this type of flocking (HERE). 

Friday 15 November 2013

It's that time of year...

 Copyright M.G. Reed 2010

Saturday 9 November 2013

"Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis … "

More rather bleak stuff on the state of scientific publishing - Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. F.C. Fang, R. Grant Steen & A. Casadevall. (2012) PNAS. 109 No 42 17028-17033.

Casadevall and co-authors looked hard at more than 2,000 retracted biomedical research papers since 1977. Of the papers they looked at more than two-thirds were retracted because of fraud, suspected fraud, duplicate publication or plagiarism. Only a fifth of the retractions were the result of error. They estimated that the percentage of scientific papers being retracted due to fraud had increased about 10-fold since the early 1970's.
And some good pieces in the Guardian on the ongoing debates around post-publication peer review - enabled by blogs and sharp eyed readers of scientific journals.

Accusations of fraud spur a revolution in scientific publishing.

Not breaking news: many scientific studies are ultimately proved wrong!