Thursday, May 16, 2013

Brilliant Blunders

This was the title of Mario Livio's new book, just out a couple days ago.  He'd spoken in WDC and Seattle about it already, ISEPP / Portland being his third stop.  Tomorrow:  Science Friday with Ira Flato, a talk at PSU (Kramer Hall) and another book signing at Powell's.

ISEPP has hosted Mario twice before in Portland.  I thought this time he seemed more rested, but then I think the noosphere's in a better place as well.

Mario puts real leg work into his books and tries to discover for himself what's so.  He's something of a myth buster, e.g. exploding canards about Phi (esoteric to know any).

This time he disabused us of the idea that Darwin had been aware of Mendel's work.  He didn't have the paper, and the one book he had that mentions Mendel still had the relevant page uncut (you had to cut open pages more back then).  Mario had a picture of that.  And besides, even if one had read that account, it was superficial and wouldn't have amounted to a hill of beans for Darwin.

Darwin's blunder was to assume with his times that heredity was a kind of blending.  Traits would shmoo together, not stay sharp.  Such a model actually works against the possibility of evolution by natural selection, as some critics subsequently pointed out.

Einstein's blunder was to take the cosmological constant out of his equations, once universal expansion was discovered.  He thought universal expansion made said constant unnecessary and regretted having introduced it.  On the contrary, the latest empirical results suggest an accelerating rate of expansion, making the constant useful.  He should have kept it.

Finally, Linus Pauling got DNA wrong, publishing an inside-out, triple helical version.  Mario thought his alpha helix discovery primed the pump in that he'd withheld the latter discovery for thirteen years while he sought verification, and then was proved right all along.

Given the pressure to find the structure of DNA, he decided to risk a theory that, in retrospect, went against basic chemical principles (all those mutually repulsive phosphorous atoms would need lots of hydrogen bonds to hold them together, but then how would DNA register as an acid without exploding?).

I asked during Q&A if we Portland, Oregonians, proud of our native son, should keep circulating the story that a third Nobel Prize might have been his had he been allowed to go to England to see Rosalind Franklin's pictures.  The numbskull State Department, terrified of McCarthyites, a kind of low-brow know-nothing, had denied him a visa.  That denial is on display at OSU, a badge of honor.

Mario dispelled this myth as well, saying Pauling did make it to England shortly thereafter and ignored the opportunity to collaborate with Rosalind.  "So it was his own damned fault" I concluded, to audience laughter.  Mario shares the view that the McCarthy period was a dark one in this country.

At the dinner, Mario talked more about telescopy and astrophysics.  He's the head of the Space Science Telescope Institute these days, a fitting position in an illustrious career.

He also talked about art, expressing high admiration for Vermeer (he collects art books, had just bought two that very day at Powell's for $150).

I asked if, budget permitting, a telescope similar to Hubble, in Earth's orbit, would still be useful to science, even in if the James Webb works as advertised.  He was more starry eyed about an L2-placed large array that would look sharply at distant Earth-like planets, something Webb might start to do (if all goes well).

I'd remembered from my three day stint at STScI how some of the folks wondered why Earth-pointing telescopes (aka "spy satellites") of somewhat similar design, could get replaced yet their Hubble couldn't be, for budget reasons.  Why those priorities?

Joe Arnold asked a series of questions about geniuses going off the deep end, making "blunders squared" so to speak.  Newton, for example.  Didn't has work in alchemy make him at least a third crazy?

Terry piped up about the poverty of any cosmological narrative back then and the need to resort to theological terms.  Science was not yet up to shouldering such burdens as the story of the cosmos, and yet humans have a need to explore that regardless of how little is known.

Another question during the Q&A was whether the rate of new discoveries was tapering off.  Mario thought the life sciences were poised for exponential expansion, whereas physics, particle physics in particular, had the boosted power of the LHC and maybe advanced LIGO to look forward to (a gravitational wave detector), but then what?   There might be fewer breakthroughs to look forward to there.  Science is not monolithic after all, is more amoeba-like.

Finally, at the dinner we talked about communications with extra-terrestrials and whether we should be concerned about revealing our presence, as Stephen Hawking seemed to counsel.  Mario thought the difficulties in communicating across a "generation gap", in terms of how long the relative time a life form had been around -- a difference of perhaps a billion years -- would be as great a barrier as the gap in distance.  How well do we "communicate" with bacteria?

The problem with our notion of "intelligent life" is we have so little to compare it with, other than its diversity on planet Earth.  What would dolphins say I wonder?  If a lion could talk we would not understand him.

Tara got a personalized copy of the book while chatting about her interest in physics.