>digital<: to finger sth.

[Original German Blog Post]

Arno Schmidt: Zettel’s Traum. The detail shown above read:
(dug from 'dig' & this from
'digital' : to finger sth.

digital (not comparable)
[1] Having to do with digits (fingers or toes); performed with a finger.
[2] Property of representing values as discrete numbers rather than a continuous spectrum.
– digital computer, digital clock
[3] Of or relating to computers or the Computer Age.

Digitus is Latin for finger or toe. To comprehend the reality means literally to grasp, to catch – the same as in German begreifen – to grasp with your fingers. Of the interesting relation between our hands, the comprehending the world and counting, which form also somehow the base of our digital culture, I was reminded by Arno Schmidt’s bawdy derivation of the word digital.

When Schmidt was composing his first and most voluminous typescript novel “Zettel’s Traum” end of the 1960s, the word digital in German language had exclusively the anatomical meaning, as given under [1] in Wiktionary; I looked this up in several German dictionaries and thesauruses of that time period – nowhere would digital be used in the nowadays predominant way [2] or [3].

In contrary to the English-American sphere. There, digit means a sign for a number after all.
Why do the English count directly with their fingers, while we Germans calculate with the Zahl, from zala, which means a mark, a brand sign? Zahl, Zeichen (sign) and digit, as well as toe and token have the same Indo-European root *deik̑-, but the path of the word into the two languages was different however.

A problem of interest to astronomers and theologians likewise, from the late antiquity on, was the determination of Easter in the calenders. The difficulty comes from the seven days of the week, the different lengths of the months and the 365 days of the year not being each other’s multiples. Therefore, the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring varies between March 22nd and April 25th. It was the artistry of the Computus to calculate this date for the future years.

The anglosaxian Benedictine Beda, the Venerable, is the father of our chronology of AD and BC. Like many thinkers following Augustine, Beda assumed that in our world all things would be “ordered in measure and numbers” (Wisdom 11,20 – sed omnia mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti).

To give a calculation for Easter, valid and consistent for the whole world, he had written the henceforth mandatory work on the Computus: De Temporum Ratione, Of the Calculation of the Times.

Right the first chapter deals with “Calculation and Language of the Fingers”. Beda introduces counting and shows, how the denumberable, via counting with the fingers, leads to an alphabet of digits; it becomes digitised. “De Computo vel loquela digitorum” – Computing with Digits.

Even though many developments of mechanical calculation from Schickard to Leibnitz – and finally Zuse – took place in Germany, it were Charles Babbage and Ada Byron, who put a Digit Counting Apparatus in the mill of their Analytical Engine. Since then, the word digital appears more and more often in context with calculating machines in England and the US. Since the 1930s (and up to today), digital is used to name the coding of signals by discrete values and numbers in opposite to analogue.

The digital world – counted with your fingers, abstract, decomposed into data computed under logical rules. In opposite to that is apparently the reality, comprehendalbe in an analogue way.
There: Plato – here: Aristotele … etc. etc.

“How I Killed Pluto” by Mike Brown

Original German Blog Post]

“Good science is a careful and deliberate process. […] The discovery itself contains little of scientific interest. Almost all of the science […] comes from studying the object in detail after discovery.”
Mike Brown

Astronomy’s objects – planets, stars, galaxies – may in fact race through the universe at unimaginable speed – watched from earth however their movements seam often rather unhurried. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was immediately added as ninth member to the hitherto existing eight planets, even though it was only half of our earth’s moon’s size. Therewith the solar system appeared to be somehow complete; while one object was to be predicted through Neptune’s orbit to be found beyond the eigths planet, giving thus reason for the search for the ninth planet, there where no hints for more planets.

The “tenth planet”, Eris, its discovery in 2005 making Mike Brown to one of the most famous astronomers in the world, is double the size of Pluto, with an even stronger elliptical orbit. By random, Eris was positioned rather far outside in the 1930ies; two hundred years earlier or later – and it would probably have been discovered before Pluto or at least simultaneously. Then, there would have been suddenly not one of those Trans-Neptune-Objects, but two. Wouldn’t those small boulders, in their far distance, and with their stretched orbits have been classified as planets at all, but just be counted as asteroids?

The question of time’s role in sciences, timing, the season on the one hand, patience on the other, is the actual topic of “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”. By reporting his private life in an amusing way, by letting us witness more than ten years of his biography, the initiation of his marriage, the birth of his daughter, her first years in life, it becomes in a subtle way apparent, how slowly and laboriously the scientific work, taking place in parallel gets protracted. Similar to the celestial bodies, that he observes, the project described by Mike Brown moves along, more in decades than in years. Infinite patience while watching the sky at night and while evaluating the images in day time. The same routine for years, interrupted by the nights of the full moon.

The second aspect of time – timing, the right season – gives extreme suspense to the book. While Brown is preparing the publication of three Trans-Pluto-Objects, a team of Spanish astronomers flashes ahead by publishing their own discovery of right one of these celestial bodies. Brown, at first taking it for mere chance, shoots of his two remaining objects right the same week, steeling the show of Spanish group, for one of these two would be Eris, of remarkable size and extraordinary distance. But then, bit by bit, it becomes visible that there were inconsistencies with the Spanish publication, and even if the case was never solved finally, it looks like Brown became victim of some “espionage” among colleagues.

What ever might have been the case – the internal and external struggle about ethics in science, about the right way of publication, about the importance of review and the necessary privacy, make this book in particular worth reading. Brown thus gives enough space to the reader, to make their own mind, even if he gives a very personal point of view regarding the Spanish astronomers of course.

And in the end, a truly epic show-down takes place, when within the IAU, the International Astronomical Union, a downright fight starts, what should finally be called a planet – just the eight, up to Neptune, or every of a unknown multitude of objects up to the most remote rim of the solar system. This is not about science, but about language, and most of all, about the power of terms and names.
Wittgenstein would have had his fun.

Mike Brown: “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”
New York (Spiegel & Grau) 2010, approx. 19,80 EUR
ISBN 978-0-385-53108-5

Further reading:
Scientific American – My first 30 years

Metaphysics, Speculation and Science

[Original German blog post]

The scientist looks through the objective – does this render his research objective?

The occasion for this post is a rather persistently held debate on Twitter, I would like to broaden my own points a bit. These touche only a part of this by and large amusing discussion that spun a much wider arc.

The basic motive of this conversation were the “Two Cultures”, how this complex of sciences vs. humanities is called since the famous text by Ch. P. Snow. I want to pin on two aspects, that I find worth telling in the context of Slow Media: the question of the value of metaphysics for the sciences. The second: my hope, that the publicity of sciences that has been changed so much by the Web and platforms like Wikipedia and Blogs with their comments, a “Third Culture” becomes possible.

This Twitter-discussion’s protagonists assumed the according roles in Snow’s play of the two cultures quickly; me – despite my own career – on the side of the humanities. Finally all would just dissolve in consensus, would not an issue have been risen, that immediately made obvious the deep divide between the two cultures: first, the question if the scepticism of the scientific method is to be used on their own foundations, and second – and this came as a complete surprise for me – by a quote that I twittered to illustrate the first point.

Ehlers: ‘ … But in the end the decision [to accept a new theory] is made using criteria on which both sides agree: the representatives of the older and the younger generations.’
Stichweh: ‘Is that always the case? I don’t know a single opponent of Darwin
who became convinced. They actually did die out, some time in the nineteenth century.’

From Reinhard Breuer, Michael Springer: The truth in science.
Interview with Jürgen Ehlers und Rudolf Stichweh. GENERAL RELATIVITY AND GRAVITATION 41, Nr 9, 2159-2167 (Originally published as Breuer, R., Springer, M. “Die Wahrheit in der Wissenschaft”, Spektrum der
Wissenschaft 7/2001)

Christian Huygens, “the most elegant mathematician of his time”, one of the most prominent figures of the enlightenment, had said in the context of Galileo’s defence: “The world is my country, science my religion.” I found this appropriate for our conversation. After that, the der consensus was not to be restored until the end of the discussion. Even a harsh tone came into the rhetoric and – I have sensed it this way, taking the counter positioning – the “scientist’s party” fell in figueres of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit), the images becoming almost geradezu martial. The snappishness by which the equalization of science with religion, deduced from the quote, was fought against, surprised me even more, when I was blamed, to insult the scientific side. In return I found myself as faithful catholic suddenly put on one level with creationists and other esoteric cranks.

First law of thermodynamics: What you gain in force you loose in distance. Even though it is tempting to transfer the physical images onto human society, like Francis Bacon had called for, things are not that simple …

After school I had no doubt to choose a scientific education. I studied mathematics and computer sciences. Like many of my fellows I was caught by the joy of data visualisation: it was the time of the “Fractal Geometry of Nature” by Mandelbrot and the invention of the graphic processor. Because of my knowledge in electronic data analysis I got a job in the Institute for Human Ethology in the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft at Andechs.

What was special with the team at this institute was the extraordinary, interdisciplinary mixture: zoologists (mainly ornithologists and primate experts) there were physicians, psychologists, linguists and even art historians. This was due to the research’s objective: human behaviour – from nonverbal communication (where I had landed) to languages, proxemics (behavior in a group) up to the whole repertoire of culture, art, architecture and especially music – the search was for what unifies men, what was universally valid, no matter which culture in the world had been watched, and what would be specific only for some people, evolved through adaptation to different environmental conditions. From the ethological method of comparative behavioural research I have been benefiting up to today – many research projects had been realised by Christiane Tramitz and me since then – although our severance from the Max-Planck-Institute did take place in a rather ungentle way.

In those days, some tropes borrowed from postmodernism and already sunken down to undergraduate seminars had been quite en vogue. Had the humanities’ mainstream in the preceding decade attacked the biologic research of men just as being part of bourgeois defence of power, now every reductionism, characterising the classic scientific method, was dispraised as construct. The arguments of those times had basically been quite harmless and hardly positioned to really disturb the research work – thus different from the class-struggle-rhetoric of the earlier years. As meanwhile graduated statistician I was anyway hardly to be frightened by postmodernism, had I not chosen a discipline dealing with getting and affirming knowledge out of data, afflicted by random or even better: derived from incomplete models.

Some colleagues however where effected in a hard way by this criticism, for this aimed on a pecular aspect of many human biological projects: from their alleged scientific hypothesis they derived ethical norms. Just the sociobiology, examining the behaviour of man under his conspecifics under biologic aspects is extremely prone to take its reductionism (“group”, “clan”, “people”, “culture” etc.) for real objects. I don’t want to go into the problems of postmodern anthropology and ethnology here. Another topic I had – so to say – to learn the hard way: these norms were not to be criticised, how I was told, because they had been obtained by scientific method. To make this clearer: it was a moral framework that could be called Darwinist in a broader sense. Darwinism – this may be stressed here – is not evolutionary thought, but a social teaching deviated from it. In this, a behaviour is morally judged good or bad, to what extent it helps men – individual or in a kin group – to give their genes to a next generation as numerous as possible; brought to its end this is the “nature, the cruel queen” in her realm – I think I do not have to get more explicit; so much for my career in biology

There is no escape from this logic, if you stay in this biological positivism; this is what is called “Dialectic of Enlightenment” since World War II. But their is a chance, not to slide into barbarism with enlightenment, namely by making a step outside.

Euclid’s Elements. By changing some of the axioms, that are pretended evident to our assumption, one does not get to antinomies but to new worlds: the non-euclikic geometry

Meta means behind, beyond, and metaphysics has been another space for thought, into which we may step back to look on the physis, the nature and think ponder on what comes after having watched nature.

Stichweh: ‘If I compare science with art or religion, from outside, then science is
different in the sense that it claims that its statements are true.. […] Niklas Luhmann said that truth is science in a state of exhaustion.’
From Reinhard Breuer, Michael Springer: The truth in science.
Interview with Jürgen Ehlers und Rudolf Stichweh. GENERAL RELATIVITY AND GRAVITATION 41, Nr 9, 2159-2167 (Originally published as Breuer, R., Springer, M. “Die Wahrheit in der Wissenschaft”, Spektrum der
Wissenschaft 7/2001)

Metaphysics, this I have learned yesterday once again, is not rated high. But the question for meaning, for the essence of the unearthed scientific insight cannot be answered within the system itself. The “remaining risk” of civilian use of nuclear energy that its advocates happyly take for all men (no matter if these agree), the question if genetic engineering should be promoted, if climate change is a necessary evil of our civilisation or a crime – all are not scientific questions. Doubts with research were likly placated by politicians. “Discussion without blinkers” was the mantra of the so called Ethikrat in Germany – in plain text: stay away with your boring moral from our science!

“Limitation on cut-out, sharply isolated objects […], by the desire for exactnes aspiring to create laboratory-like conditions – refuses not just temporaryly but in principle the dealing with the totality of society. This enails that the assertions of social research often carry the character of the fruitless, peripheral […]. Unmistakably is there the danger of becominging petitfogging with stuff […]. In the effort to keep to watertight data and by discrediting every question for essence as metaphysics, it is imminent for social research to remain limited to the inessential in the name of the undoubtably correct. Often enough their objects are dictated by their methods, …” Theodor W. Adorno, “Empirische Sozialforschung” in Gesammelte Schriften, 9.2

Speculation is a second metaphysical field closely tied to sciences. Speculation does not mean to get nailed down by the normative power of the presumingly factical. By speculating we look into a “mirror and view puzzling contours”. Just by getting up from immediate experience of the collected data and abstractly think farther, a shift in paradigm can be achieved.

“No difference should exist between an animal totem, the dreams of a visonary and the absolute idea. On the way to modern science men abandon meaning. They replace the idea with the formula, cause by rule and probability.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Dialektik der Aufklärung”.

By denying an external theory discussion in the sciences, science itself becomes dogmatic. I would not go as far as Adorno by accusing the sciences to have become myths in new clothes. But by contemptibly placing metaphysics, speculations and ethic founded on faith on the same level of irrationality as esoteric and idolatry in opposition to science, science wastes the chance to reflect on itself, to keep a critical distance.

But indeed there is a lot going on regarding the Two Cultures. On platforms like Wikipedia exponents of both blocks confront each other regularly and have to find consensus, if there effort should not lead to endless edit-wars. The arguments sit well documented and traceable on the discussion page. There is a considerable number of blogging researchers (both sciences and humanities). In the comments the positions can be negotiated in transparent way, like it had never been possible in the past. Opinions not shared can be criticised here; everyone can contribute and cross tie via links. This participating in scientific publicity was exclusively reserved to peer-review in the old days.

The good thing of this publicity: incomprehensible and arcane terminology has bad chances to stand the discussion; bad times to curl up, make your own bed and lie in it. An open system that is by its mere way of publication – available for everyone – invites to participate. I believe that thus a “Third Culture” will evolve – like Snow had hoped in 1959.

The quadrature of the circle: take a step back, out from the flat ring of ratios into the lofty field of real numbers (what metaphor!), the radius is put in relation to circumference easily.

Power or Action?

[Original German Blog-Post]

Remember that time is money.
Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Tradesman

When Benjamin Franklin had “snatched the lightning from the skies” with the lightning rod and “the scepter from the tyrants” with the American Independence, it was hardly possible to doubt words of this titanic hero of the enlightenment. His most famous quote though, is neither related to science of nature nor with statesmanship, but sets a rule that would become the creed of an efficiency oriented economy: “Time is Money”.

The physical Term of Power P is defined by Work W (respectively Energy, then abbreviated with E) produced (resp. consumed) by unit of time t. Thus the equation
P = W / t corresponds quite good with the common understanding of power or even better: with effort: a factory worker producing 100 pieces per hour has double the power of his colleague for whom the same quantity would take two hours. And of course we take it for granted that the first worker would be paid a better salary for his higher effort.

And here ends the analogy of physics and economy. It is for sure not the case that a highly compensated member of the management would really take more efforts than the mediocrity at the bottom of the company’s hierachy. This thread of thought is followed by Werner Große, blogger and film maker in his post on the German SciLogs. There is another physical term that describes much better, on what the differences in salaries are ideally based: Action, effect.

Action in physics is not to be mistaken for activity. Action S is defined here as Work (resp. energy) multiplied by time, in mathematical notation

S = E ⋅ t

The simple mathematical equations that express the concepts relate easily to Slow Media: Because power is work by time (P = E / t), Action and Power are also closely tied together: S = P ⋅ t2
In words: I may achieve the same action or effect with half of the power, but it takes fourfold the time.

Therefore it is evident, that power or effort taken by itself leads quickly to mindless waste of energy – hey, it’s alright as long we slaved away as much as possible! From a different point of view, the meaning of action becomes even clearer. On her recommendable site “Grundfragen der Physik, neu gestellt und beantwortet von einer Frau” (in German; translates as “Fundamental Questions of Physics, newly asked and answered by some Women”), Brunhild Krüger writes:

If I had only 1 kWh of energy to use: with a bulb that has the power of 100 Watt, I could illuminate a room for 10 hours. But if I would only want to read a book, a table lamp with 40 Watt is sufficient, that can burn for 25 hours until the available energy would be consumed.
The smaller power is used, the longer one can profit from the available energy.

More and more power – that means more and more energy is consumed in even shorter periods of time. But usually it is essential what effect is achieved. This is true for machines and publications likewise. Instead of insisting on effort, on expenses, on labour, like has been used as an argumented for justifying Related Rights and prosecution of copyright infringements, the publishers should better take care that their work would lead to some action, would have effect.

Scientific American – my first 30 years.

[Original German Blog Post]

What is call ‘standard model’ of particle physics – model implying the provisional character – gives an impressive interpretation of many aspects of our world.Spektrum.de / Weltbild vor dem Umbruch

Today the great day has arrived at LHC – the large particle accelerator at European research institute CERN. Why is it important for us to get even smaller and smaller details of our world in sight? Because only by observing our image of the world, our model that we have constructed for her description will proof adequate.
Since May 1980, for exactly thirty years, I have been reading Scientific American (first it was more being enchanted by the mystical pictures – most of the text I would not have understood). Many of the scientific projects which find their way into the general interest press nowadays, have been present from that time on. At days like today I recognise how beautiful and dialectic the scientific process can be. Extended over years, models are speculated about and from these the existence of new bricks of our world is deduced – like the Higgs Boson, that, to get experimentally discovered, warrants all the enormous effort in Geneva. If you read these developments from the end – from the publication of the break through news, you cannot understand how science works.

The slowness to map this process month after month is for me the most outstanding quality of Scientific American – pros and cons of all different points of view – and indeed across all branches of science. – and last but not least philosophy. Here I first read about John Sears “Chinese Chamber” – and sensed his critique of Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of the human machine as liberating; here I first came across “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience” by David Chalmers radically questioning the possibility of getting empirical insight on our selves.

Many arguments on science blogs or Twitter avoid the point, which is often circumvented also by not a few scientists by taking only taking into focus what is achievable empirically just now: the implicit foundation of knowledge. When in discourse on ethics of science someone demands to discuss without preoccupation, it usually means to leave out any worries that would question the proceedings – how earnest these concerns might be. But disputes as given by Searle or Chalmers allow the necessary room for self reflection. This for me is one of strengths of Scientific American. And thus even articles like “Human Dignity is touchable” by religion-critic Edgar Dahl (in the German edition Spektrum der Wissenschaft become acceptable and even worth reading for me.

And with feeling still uncomfortable with Dahl’s assault on the human dignity, the same issue offers even wonderfully lightweight food for thought: The Long-Lost Siblings of the Sun – a poetical title – and we start a journey five billion years back, see a nearby explosion of a supernova and witness the sun and her siblings leaving their nursery and disperse across all of the milky way; pure utopia!

As early as the 1980s I remember articles on climate change. And Sustainable Development is know standard part of each issue’s content. And even here the Scientific American does not stay with the well-known but presents sometimes quite bold projects. Vertical Farm in high rises for example.

Comparing the original US edition with the German licenced version shows surprisingly now difference in quality, and thus really leveraging international scale – a fact not frequently seen with licensed media products.

Scientific American is also the only general interest scientific publication I know that gives space to mathematics in every issue in at least one often more articles.
And if I feel caught in everyday life’s confusion I might think about articles like Save the Earth to calm down: Yes, in geological dimensions the end of earth is already close; soon the dying sun will have swallowed all life.

Scientific American inspires. It is my most important slow medium.