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Thursday, 15 January 2015

On writing science verse

Sorry for the silence, but I have been playing Writer's Twister, a game that involves simultaneously having my nose to the grindstone, my shoulder to the wheel, my back to the wall and my ear to the ground.  I m doing end-touches on two books and working on the Big New Project, of which I may say something later this month.

On the right, you can see a dead wombat, keeping its ear to the ground.

Like the wombat, I am aware that I am inexorably approaching my use-by date.  Unlike the wombat, there are no intimations of mortality, and indeed, all the signs are good, but  it is simple mathematics.

So I have decided to gather some of my better stuff from around the web and put it in a place that will last. These items will be linked by the tag treasure chest.

This one was written to help young people trying to write verse for the first time.  You can't teach  people how to write verse, but you can teach them a few trade tricks.  In writing verse, there is art, which involves inspiration, and there is craft, which involves work.  This was originally called Literary Lapses, and its URL was (and for now, still is) http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/scifun/literary.htm

Clerihews


George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

This is a clerihew. They are amusing "potted biographies" of people, and they were invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. They do not need to have a rhythm (a metre, if you are pedantic), but they must have a rhyme, and they must say something about the person involved who has to be historical.

Limericks have to have a perfect metre and astounding rhymes, here among the clerihews, the aim is to be historically correct in an odd sort of way, and to get a weird rhyme. Relevance rates highly in clerihews, but truth is not required. Here are two more examples:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said: "I am going to dine with some men.
If anybody calls,
Say I'm designing St Paul's."

* * * * * * *

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium

Now it is time for you to try your hand. Here are some names to get started on. Most should be accessible to most people, and some are drawn from areas other than science, so feel free to pick and choose. They will all be found, somewhere on the web.

Julius Caesar    
Mary Anning    
Bill Gates    
Robert Koch    
Catherine the Great
James Joyce    
Louis Pasteur    
Richard Nixon    
Burke and Wills    
Marie Curie
Sir Francis Crick    
Sir Isaac Newton    
Sir Joseph Banks    
The young Torricelli    
Annie Jump Cannon
Macfarlane Burnet    
Jakob Bernoulli    
Pablo Picasso    
Kiri Te Kanawa    
Claude van Damme
Gus Nossal    
Dame Nellie Melba    
Arnold Schwarzenegger    
Enrico Fermi    
William Gates

Limericks

Unlike clerihews, limericks do need metre.  They need to scan.

When you start out, you need some help, so here are some ideas, a few lines to work with. In five lines, the limerick writer mist introduce somebody, explain where they are or what they are doing (second line), explain what happened to the person or thing in line three, what the reaction was in line four, and finish the whole thing off in line five. Read a few sample limericks to get the feel of it first.

Limericks have a special form. There are five lines, with lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyming, and lines 3 and 4 are rhyming. Good limericks use different words at the end of each line. They also need the right rhythm, or metre:

d'DAH-dah d'DAH-dah d'DAH (dah)
d'DAH-dah d'DAH-dah d'DAH (dah)
   d'DAH-dah d'DAH
   d'DAH-dah d'DAH
d'DAH-dah d'DAH-dah d'DAH

Here is a prime example:

There WAS an old MAN from DarJEEling
Who TRAVelled from LONdon to EALing
   It SAID on the DOOR
   Please don't SPIT on the FLOOR
So he CAREfully SPAT on the CEILing

Notice how we can sneak in the odd syllable here and there.
Now you are ready to begin:

First lines:
There was a young man from Palm Beach (reach, beseech, teach, leech, leach, peach, preach)
There was a young man from Dee Why
There was a young fellow called Smith (myth, pith, kith, with (?))

Third lines
As the camels walked in,
As the rainforests fell
For the rest of his life
The Impressionist school
As his feet turned to lead
As the keyboard went green

It is actually better to have a good word play in mind for the fifth line, or a good idea about your third and fourth lines. Here are some lines 3 and 4:

Third and fourth lines
Though he feared they had germs,
He ate all the worms

His large flock of wrens
That he passed off as hens

They found the canary
Was rather too hairy

If the horse had a chance
It would normally dance

He said "Thanks very much,
But I cannot speak Dutch,

Fifth lines with word plays:
And made cider inside her inside. (an old one!!)
A Norse of a different colour

The people cried "Cafe au lait" ( or Olé)

I came up with this line after seeing a car with OLE in its number-plate -- so the moral is: always keep your eyes skinned, as limericks can come from anywhere!

A Spanish soprano called Fay
Always sang in a can belto way
In the Coffee Cantata
When she was a starter
The people cried Café Olé!

(That one basically came to me during a walk of 200 metres, after I passed the car, to when I reached the bus stop I was headed for. Then all I had to do was tweak it.)

Other ideas for limericks:

Dig into a book, and look through the index for some interesting words. Check out your library, and see if you can find a Rhyming Dictionary -- it lists words by their rhymes.







Friday, 2 January 2015

Talking about the weather...

The Dark Knight's Tale

Knight on bear mountain
The knight rode up, in squeaking armour,
Fury writ upon his brow
And strange to say, he rode a lama—
A thief had nicked his favourite cow.

A knight whose thing was riding cattle?
I hear you ask, in rising fear.
Why yes, he did, but not in battle
The horse he'd sold to pay for beer.

His helm was sable, like his rage
And black was all the gear he wore
Save on his shoulder an off-white gage
But black was the stubble on his jaw.

He slapped his shield upon the bar,
It bore his motto "Ebon semper"
And made it clear, both near and far
He had a really nasty temper.

He kicked the spittoon over twice
And gave the crowd a dreadful fright
And then they saw, quite in a trice,
It was a dark and stormy knight.


Please send this to your friends, and spoil their New Year.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Curtiosity about arts, culture and science

Yet another set of unused epigraphs!

Piero della Francesca painted
himself in his Resurrection, in
which he is the guard with a goitre


The division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we can repair communications to some extent: but, as I have said before, we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of their world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Goethe. With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of the imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once seen, cannot be denied.
— C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), The Two Cultures: a Second Look, 1963.

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all works of art which preceded it.
— T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965

There is a likeness between the creative acts of the mind in art and in science. Yet, when a man uses the word science in such a sentence, it may be suspected that he does not mean what the headlines mean by science.
— Jacob Bronowski (1908 -  ), Science and Human Values, Julian Messner, 1956.

What is the insight with which the scientist tries to see into nature? Can it indeed be called either imaginative or creative? To the literary man the question may seem merely silly. He has been taught that science is a large collection of facts; and if this is true, then the only seeing which scientists need to do is, he supposes, seeing the facts.
— Jacob Bronowski (1908 -  ), Science and Human Values, Julian Messner, 1956.

. . if science were a copy of fact, then every theory would be either right or wrong, and would be so forever. There would be nothing left for us to say but that this is so or not so. No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers.
— Jacob Bronowski (1908 -  ), Science and Human Values, Julian Messner, 1956.

There should be no honours for the artist; he has already, in the practice of his art, more than his share of the rewards of life; the honours are pre-empted for other trades, less agreeable and perhaps more useful.
— Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894), Letter to a Young Gentleman.

When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.
— W. H. Auden (1907 - ), 'The Poet and the City', in The Dyer's Hand, Faber, 1963, p. 81.

Couldn't spot Piero above? Here
he is, and the goitre is the lump
in his throat.
At one time, the state of culture in Czechoslovakia was described, rather poignantly, as a 'Biafra of the spirit'. . . I simply do not believe that we have all lain down and died. I see far more than graves and tombstones around me. I see evidence of this in . . . expensive books on astronomy printed in a hundred thousand copies (they would hardly find that many readers in the USA) . . .
— Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright (and later president), 'Six asides about culture' in Living in Truth, Faber 1989, pp. 124-5.
 
Science is part of culture. Culture isn't only art and music and literature, it's also understanding what the world is made of and how it functions. People should know something about stars, matter and chemistry. People often say that they don't like chemistry but we deal with chemistry all the time. People don't know what heat is, they hardly know what water is./I'm always surprised how little people know about anything. I'm puzzled by it.
— Max Perutz, quoted in New Scientist 26 June 1993, 31.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A merry Christmas to all my readers

 To begin on a cheery note to expunge the sugar-frosted saccharine:





Gruesome enough?  You want more?  OK, here's something I just threw into the Facebook mix:

Carpe fortuna*

The finest perfumes in the land
Will make some noses runny;
The dinner that the hawk has planned
Is bad news for the bunny.

Fortune can be cool or hot,
When there's a chance, just grab it.
Your lucky rabbit's foot was not
So lucky for the rabbit.

* That's Latin for the lucky fish, I think. 



OK, enough grue.  A couple of years back, I offered an insight into Christmas in Australia, one that went to air about 20 years ago, but here's one in verse. If you are from the northern hemisphere, you may understand it better if you look at the link first.

Christmas breakfast 2010


Christmas breakfast

The Christmas morning track,
Has birds that whirl and screech;
It winds around the hill,
And plummets to the beach.


White Christmas doesn't suit us,
But summer Yule is neat,
When we go dressed for summer,
In sunhats and bare feet.

water dragon

No snow, no sleet no gales,
No dreadful raging blizzards —
We wish to wander bushland,
Filled full with birds and lizards.


With water dragons sunning
And goannas shyly hiding,
The butcherbirds in song
And kookaburras gliding.


We dabble in the shallows
And eat and drink our fill
If I could have my druthers,
I think we'd be there still.


Our Christmas skies are blue skies
kookaburra
They're never, ever, grey,
But walking up the bush track
It feels like Christmas day.


The Christmas morning track,
Brings simple things in reach
It winds around the hill,
But my heart's back on the beach.


* * * * * * *

As my favourite Australian carol, one that I quoted in that radio talk, has it:


The north wind is tossing the leaves,
Sydney, 8 am, a few years back
The red dust is over the town;
The sparrows are under the eaves,
And the grass in the paddock is brown.


If you Google the first line, you can find one rather awful version on Youtube.

Afterthought: or if you are lucky, you may hit upon this version, which my good friend, Robin Carroll-Mann found for me. Thanks, Robin!

Merry Christmas all, and if you are tucking into venison, please check its provenance.



Saturday, 20 December 2014

Kids and lambs


I may have mentioned that I have just switched over to a new computer and Windows 8.1 — and this in the midst of checking page proofs of a new book, doing an index and stuff like that.  Life has been just a bit frantic.

Along the way, I found a file of lost verse, so for the first time since my Young Idiot's Guide to Opera, I will offer some rhymes.

I recall, one winter's day,
Our mothers sent us out to play
And we took off our hats and coats
To romp among the sheep and goats.


Our mothers had gone out to paint
The scene, but one fell in a faint.
The other mothers brought her round,
And that was when we children found


She thought it made us all look cheap
To frolic with the goats and sheep.
She wanted us, midst rocks and greenery
To blend in with the painters' scenery.


When faced with such artistic needs,
Obedient youngsters shape their deeds.
We children gave our solemn word
That we'd be scene but never herd.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Curtiosity about population

I have been up to my neck in work and also in taming a new computer, so here's something I prepared earlier.



But far more numerous was the herd
— John Dryden

Lemmings go over cliffs, we move to town.
— Lewis Thomas, The Fragile Species, Collier Macmillan, 1992, 100.

Populations, when unchecked, increase in a geometrical ratio.  Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio.
— Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population Growth as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society.

Personally I come more and more to believe in decentralization and small-scale ownership of land and means of production.  The trouble is that, in an over-populated country like Britain, this is only partially feasible.  Mass production, coupled with mass regimentation, for export in exchange for food seems to be the ineluctable destiny of those who have made Malthus's nightmare come true.
— Aldous Huxley, letter to Harold Raymond (Chatto and Windus) from California, 1945, Letters of Aldous Huxley, Chatto and Windus, 1969, p. 465.

Every moment dies a man,
  Every moment one is born
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), The Vision of Sin, 1842.

Every moment dies a man,
  Every moment 1 1/16 is born
— Charles Babbage (1792 - 1871)

Until the 1940s, malaria was endemic in Ceylon . . . despite a high birth rate, for centuries the population has been stabilised and enervated by the mosquito. . . the population doubled in thirty years, with resultant problems of unemployment, inadequate social services, food shortages.
— Arthur C. Clarke, The View from Serendip, Gollancz, 1978, pp. 127-128.

The primary requirement for a stable human ecosystem is stabilization of human numbers.  This is something much more than the conventional aim of family planning, which is that every family should have the children they want, when they want them.  It means that at some point it becomes obligatory that each generation replaces itself and no more, that the average number of live births per woman during her lifetime shall be two plus a fraction (probably between 0.3 and 0.9) to allow for couples who are non-fertile, and for childhood deaths.
— Macfarlane Burnet, Dominant Mammal, Heinemann 1970, 129.

There is no getting away from it.  It is technically possible to carry out the scientific revolution in India, Africa, South-East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, within fifty years.  There is no excuse for Western man not to know this.  And not to know that this is the one way out through the three menaces which stand in our way — H-bomb war, over-population, the gap between the rich and the poor.  This is one of the situations where the worst crime is innocence.
— C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Rede Lecture, 1959.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Curtiosity about scientific laws



Dick the Butcher:  The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
— William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), Henry the Sixth, Part 2, IV, ii, 64

The very concept of 'laws of nature' is, in contemporary usage, both a product and an expression of the absence of reflectivity.  It introduces into the study of nature a metaphor indelibly marked by its political origins.
— Evelyn Fox Keller (1936 - ), Reflections on Gender and Science, Yale University Press, 1985, 131.

Volumi eguali di gas nelle stesse condizioni di temperatura e di pressione contengono lo stesso numero di molecole.  (Equal volumes of gas under the same conditions of temperature and pressure contain the same number of molecules.)
— Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Avogadro (1776 - 1856), a lawyer, proposes 'Avogadro's Hypothesis', now called 'Avogadro's Law'.

The important point is not the bigness of Avogadro's number, but the bigness of Avogadro.
— Henry Albert Bent (1926 -  ), The Second Law, OUP, 1965.

God did not create the planets and the stars with the intention that they should dominate man, but that they, like other creatures, should obey and serve him
— Paracelsus, Concerning the Nature of Things, c. 1541

The pious Jew or Moslem abhors pork without being conscious that it was awareness of the danger of trichinosis which probably caused his law-makers to impose the prohibition.
— Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, University paperbacks, 1967, 60.

There are ignorant people who speak flowery words and take delight in the letter of the law, saying that there is nothing else.
Bhagavad Gita, 2:42, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
— Max Planck (1858 - 1947), quoted in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 151.

Scientific law is of a totally different nature from civil law; it does not involve an intelligent lawgiver, a command, and a corresponding duty.  It is a brief description in mental shorthand of as wide a range as possible of the sequences of our sense-impressions.
— Karl Pearson (1857 - 1936), The Grammar of Science, Everyman edition, p. 98.

The judge then went on to speak of self-paste learning, and it was then that we realised that the worthy jurist, for all his worthiness, did not have a glue.
— Duncan Bain (1944 - ) 'First let's kill all the lawyers', in A Manual Cant, Breek-Anathema Press, 1988.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Curtiosity about fossils


Be kind to colleagues, ruthless with theories is a good rule.  A scientific theory isn't merely idle speculation, it's a verbal picture of how things might work, how a system in nature might organise things — atoms and molecules, species and ecosystems.  But old palaeontological theories too often aren't treated roughly enough.  Old theories — like the reptilian nature of dinosaurs — are accepted like old friends of the family.
— Robert Bakker, The Dinosaur Heresies, Penguin Books, 1986, 27.

The violence of the weather lately washed down . . . and exposed a mass, which, on digging out, proved to be the vertebrae of some animal, whose size must have been enormous.  It is in excellent preservation, every process and part being perfect. . . .  Many are the conjectures with respect to the animal; some imagine it to be the gigantic buffalo or the rhinoceros, and others the elephant.  That intelligent osteologist, Miss Anning, of Lyme, surmises it to belong to either the behemoth or the hippopotamus, yet admits that it far exceeds their acknowledged dimensions.
The Gentleman's Magazine, December 1824, p. 548.

As compared with their present-day representatives, the Tertiary vertebrates were characterised by their larger size; not that small species did not exist, but that many which then lived were larger than any existing today.
— C. A. Sussmilch, An Introduction to the Geology of New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1922, page 205.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that.
Holy Bible, Genesis, 6:4.

In all museums throughout the world one may see plaster casts of footprints preserved for posterity, not because the animals were particularly good of their sort, but because they had the luck to walk on the lava while it was cooling.  There is just the faint hope that something similar may happen to us.
— A. B. ('Banjo') Paterson, (  - 1941), speaking of himself and Henry Lawson, quoted Time April 26, 1993, 44.
Every organism forms a whole . . . if, for instance, the intestines of an animal are so organised as only to digest fresh meat, it follows that its jaws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its locomotory organs such as to pursue and catch it; its sensory organs to perceive it at a distance . . .
— Baron Cuvier, (1769-1832)

. . . implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, London, 1852, page 1.

Limulus, the king crab of the sea-shore, is still identical with its ancestor found in the fossils of the Secondary geological era: during all this time the program has not varied, each generation punctually fulfilling its task of exactly reproducing the program for the following generation.
— Francois Jacob, The Logic of Life (1973), p. 5.

Our young Geologist, who found
A fake fossil slab, made in Morocco.
These monstrous Bones deep underground
And sent his parcel, not a light one,
To his enlightened friend at Brighton;
Imagined, perhaps, like those who send
The marbles of almighty Greece
Here, to some Antiquarian friend,
They'd make a famous Mantel-piece.
— Anonymous verse (19th century), celebrating the purchase by Gideon Mantell, of an iguanodon found in a quarry at Maidstone.

'Cheer up,' he said, and then he winked.
'It's rather fun to be extinct!'
Ogden Nash (1902 - 1971), 'Fossils' in Carnival of the Animals

See Simulating a fossil
David Davies, a Welsh mine foreman, was the first to make really large collections of plant material from different coal seams.  He showed that even when the plants did not differ very much, there were differences in the proportions of different kinds, just as in one meadow you will find a great deal of clover among the grass, in another very little.
J.B.S.Haldane (1892-1964) Everything Has a History, Allen and Unwin 1951, page 50.

The origins of coal
'It is nothing else,' said the engineer; 'it is light bottled up in the earth for tens of thousands of years — light, absorbed by plants and vegetables, being necessary for the condensation of carbon during the process of their growth, if it be not carbon in another form — and now, after being buried in the earth for long ages in the fields of coal, that latent light is again brought forth and liberated, made to work as in that locomotive, for great human purposes.'
— Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson, quoted in Charles Mackay (ed.), A Thousand and One Gems of English Prose (n.d.), p. 240.


In inland districts, on mountain peaks and in places farthest from the sea, shells, skeletons of sea-fish and marine plants are found, which are just the same as the shells, fish and plants now living in the sea, which are, indeed, exactly the same.

— Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon


Every organism forms a whole . . . if, for instance, the intestines of an animal are so organised as only to digest fresh meat, it follows that its jaws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its locomotory organs such as to pursue and catch it; its sensory organs to perceive it at a distance

Baron Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier (1769 - 1832)

We have a lamentable instance of the gross impositions practized on the ignorant in former times, at two of their establishments on this coast - Whitby and Lindisfarn, where, to make it appear to the vulgar that their titular saints possessed the power of working miracles; St Hilda is said to have decapitated the snakes and converted them into stones of that form (now the Ammonites of the Lias); and St Cuthbert of Holy Island, is said, with his little hammer, to have forged the introchi (of the Mountain Limestone) - so called St Cuthbert's Beads.

What a gross perversion of Nature.
 

— William Smith (1769 - 1839)

The violence of the weather lately washed down . . . and exposed a mass, which, on digging out, proved to be the vertebrae of some animal, whose size must have been enormous. It is in excellent preservation, every process and part being perfect. . . . Many are the conjectures with respect to the animal; some imagine it to be the gigantic buffalo or the rhinoceros, and others the elephant. That intelligent osteologist, Miss Anning, of Lyme, surmises it to belong to either the behemoth or the hippopotamus, yet admits that it far exceeds their acknowledged dimensions.

The Gentleman's Magazine
(1928??)


. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.

Lady Harriet Silvester, in her diary, 1824, after visiting Mary Anning.


She sells sea shells
By the sea shore,
And the shells that she sells
Are sea shells, I'm sure.

Verse about Mary Anning


We are lucky to have fossils at all. It is a remarkably fortunate fact of geology that bones, shells and other hard parts of animals, before they decay, can occasionally leave an imprint which later acts as a mould, which shapes hardening rock into a permanent memory of the animal. We don't know what proportion of animals are fossilized after their death - I personally would consider it a very great honour to be fossilized - but it is certainly very small indeed. . .  If a single well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million years-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed. Incidentally, this is sufficient answer to the canard, put about by creationists and their journalistic fellow travellers, that the whole theory of evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology. Ironically, it is also why creationists are so keen on the fake human footprints, which were carved during the depression to fool tourists, in the dinosaur beds of Texas.

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.


 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Moral Tale

Two things matter here.  We have been having new carpet laid at home, and I used to be regarded as a heavyweight on educational measurement at a time when the Hierarchy needed educating (nothing has changed).  Anyhow, a colleague named Glen Coulton used to tell Snake Gully stories, and I elected, on occasion, to follow suit.

The relevance of the new carpets is that I had to clear a lot of stuff out of the way, and I have been assessing what to keep and what to throw. One of my finds was one of those Snake Gully stories. Called A Moral Tale, it was a hand-out that I sent around in the October 1979.

This story would never have seen the light of day once more if I had not been somewhat subversive — in the interests of education.I thought it should be brought back to life.  I had, I must confess, quite forgotten it.

Note that it is without a doubt scholarly: it has footnotes, though not the one that I placed in an official Departmental publication, stating that "A pedant is a footnote fetishist".

Anyhow, here it is:


* * * * * *

The staff of Snake Gully High School were disturbed. It was clear to them that the School Report form did not cover all that it should. So they stayed back after school and discussed the issue at length.

To cut an extremely long story somewhat shorter, their main conclusion was that brain and brawn did not always come together. Nor did the one rule out the other. So, since the school's motto was "Growth in Everything" (1), they decided to include a new section on the Report Form. For ease of communication, this was called "Bigness".

At this stage, several groups formed to press for different views on what constituted "bigness".

One group, combining the Science master, a Maths teacher, the History mistress and the French teacher, recalled that the metre was defined from a line from the North Pole to the equator through the Arc de Triomphe. Because of this (and not because their average height was in excess of 190 cm) they proposed that "Bigness“ be defined as:

Height in centimetres

A second group, including two Home Science teachers, a former hydrogeologist, a former "Mermaid" girl, and several teetotallers argued for the pedagogical centrality of water. A kilogram, they said, was the mass of a 10 cm cube of water. Thus, the first definition was subsumed (if not inundated) by their choice of mass as the prime criterion of "bigness". Water was as clean and pure as their motives in putting all of their considerable weight behind the definition of "bigness" as

Mass in kilograms

A third group, known to the rest of the school as "that load of old cobblers“ had a thing about feet. They pointed out that shoe size measurement had an air of Tradition: to an arbitrary length, add the number of barleycorns required to complete the length. (2)

At the mention of barleycorns, this group was joined by several dedicated drinkers, known (for reasons quite unfathomable) as the Last of the Bigfeet. Jointly they pressed their case for "Bigness" to be defined as

Shoe size

The Principal, a person of compromise, decided to use all three measures equally, adding them together. Being a former Maths teacher, he chose to standardise the scores, producing Z-scores.

"Justice", he said (deftly coining a cliché) "must not only be done, it must be seen to be done". (3)

And so it came to pass that the School Reports went forth, and the carbon copies descended unto the lowest drawer of the filing cabinet.

* * * * * *

Early in the following year, a new sports coordinator was appointed. He found a need to select boys' teams for basketball, tug-of-war, and barefoot water skiing.

As it happened it was still vacation time, and so he was unable to try the students out for these teams. Since the teams were to go on an inter-school visit at the very start of term, he had no choice but to use the only available resource : the index of "bigness" in the school records.

As a result, the school basketball team was made up of people who looked like the fellow on the left. The tug-of-war team all looked like the chap in the middle, and the barefoot water skiers all looked like the lad on the right.

 Moral: profile reports sometimes avoid losing valuable detail which is not indicated in a global index.

Footnotes:
 
(1) Except on the signboard at the front of the school where a disgruntled art teacher had modified it "Growth on Everything".

(2) Lyle V. Jones, "The Nature of Measurement" in Robert L. Thorndike (Ed.) Educational Measurement, 2nd edition, Washington: American Council on Education, 1971, p. 339.

(3) As neither he nor his staff had heard of John Marshall, McCulloch or Maryland, this is a true statement.
Credits:

I can't be sure, but I think Ian Munro did the drawings for me.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Curtiosity about scientific discovery



Have you listened with attention?  Are you now free from your doubts and confusion?
Bhagavad Gita, 18:72, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

In the very beginnings of science,
The parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel,
Made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length
Some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods
By the atoms, which last to this hour.
— James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879)  (Said to be notes on the address of a president of the British Association to its members.

. . . it were good to divide natural philosophy into the mine and the furnace, and to make two professions or occupations of natural philosophers, some to be pioneers and some smiths; some to dig, and some to refine and hammer.
— Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626), Of the Advancement of Learning (1605), Oxford University Press World's Classics, 1969, p. 106.

I would propose that the chemists (or ex-chemists like myself) of my generation when they are introduced to each other should each show the palm of the right hand: towards the centre, where the tendon that flexes the middle finger crosses what palm readers call the life line, the majority of them have a small professional, highly specific scar whose origin I will explain. . . .Plugs of cork or rubber were used for retention; when (a frequent thing, in order, for example, to connect the flask to a cooler) you had to slip a piece of glass bent at a straight angle into a pierced plug, hold it and turn it while pushing, the glass often broke, and the sharp stump plunged into your hand.
— Primo Levi, 'The Mark of the Chemist' in Other People's Trades, page 86.

Nobody will object to an ardent experimentalist boasting of his measurements and rather looking down on the 'paper and ink' physics of his theoretical friend, who on his part is proud of his lofty ideas and despises the dirty fingers of the other.
— Max Born (1882 - 1970), Experiment and Theory in Physics, 1943.

We've got no money, so we've got to think.
— Lord Rutherford, quoted by Sir Edward Appleton, 1956 Reith lectures.

. . . in a few years, all great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will be left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals.
— James Clerk Maxwell (1813 - 1879), Scientific papers, 1871, (Maxwell was describing this view in preparation to attacking it).

It is the greatest discovery in method which science has made that the apparently trivial, the merely curious, may be clues to an understanding of the deepest principles of nature.
  Sir George Paget Thomson (1892- ????)

It follows, though the point will require extended discussion, that a discovery like that of oxygen or X-rays does not simply add one more item to the population of the scientist's world.  Ultimately it has that effect, but not until the professional community has re-evaluated traditional experimental procedures, altered its conception of entities with which it has long been familiar, and, in the process, shifted the network of theory through which it deals with the world.
— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 7.

It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment.  A. N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery.  Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object.  In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Sphere Books, 1967, 73.

The creative impulse seems not to wish to produce finished work.  It certainly deserts us half-way after the idea is born; and if we go on, creation is work.
— Clarence Day (no other details, sorry)

Yet out of pumps grew the discussions about Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum, and then it was discovered that Nature does not abhor a vacuum, but that air has weight; and that notion paved the way for the doctrine that all matter has weight, and that the force which produces weight is co-extensive with the universe — in short, to the theory of universal gravitation and endless force.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895), On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge, 1866.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The first Sydney Harbour tunnel

Crooked Mick decided one year the drought had gone on just a bit too long.  It really was a bad dry spell, even for the Speewah.  First, the trees had started following Mick's dog around, and then even the mirages had dried up, so Mick headed down to Sydney to see what work he could pick up, and Flash Jack and Lazy Harry came with him.  Times were tough everywhere, and they talked on the way about what they would do.

Lazy Harry reckoned he'd heard there was money to be got from holding up a bank, but then Mick pointed out that most of them weren't falling over, so Harry had to think again.  In the end, Harry and Flash Jack opened up their own outdoors barber service, down at Circular Quay.  All they needed was a box for the customers to sit on and their shears, they reckoned.

The trouble was that even city slickers knew a bit about shearing, and they smelled a rat when they saw the tar pot behind the box, ready to be used on any cuts and nicks.  Then again, anybody who saw how they grabbed their customers and held them would be unlikely to line up for a trim, and the word soon spread — "The Mad Barbers" one newspaper called them.  Well the upshot was their business was poor, and they ended up going back to the Speewah, leaving Mick behind in the Big Smoke.

Mind you, I think what really got them going was when this rough bloke from the Rocks came down and said he wanted a good shave and fast.  Looking carefully at the tar-pot, he produced a large pistol, and sat with it in his lap as they put the drop sheet around him, a habit they picked up after the first week, though it didn't work on the sheep at all, the next year when they went back shearing.  Anyhow, this rough bloke settles himself in then gives Flash Jack the eye.

"If you blokes so much as nick me," he says, "I'll shoot you both dead."

"I'm sorry sir," says Flash Jack.  "We don't need your business."

"You do if you don't want to start leaking from holes in your chest," the rough bloke growls, and that makes it final.

Well Flash Jack got the shakes, but Lazy Harry steps in, strops the old cut-throat razor to perfection, lathers him up, shaves him down without so much as a nick.  Standing up and paying, the rough bloke says "That got you going didn't it?  Reckoned your last hour'd come, eh?"

Lazy Harry wipes the razor clean on an old towel.  "No," he says.  "If I'd nicked you, I would have slashed your throat on the next stroke," calm as you like.  But that afternoon, the two of them cleared off for the bush before any more rough blokes could come out of the Rocks for a shave, leaving Mick in the city, all by himself.

Anyhow, there was an election coming on, and the government decided to promise a tunnel under the harbour.  They even went through the act of calling for tenders.  All the big companies were in on the joke, and turned in the quotes their mates the politicians wanted.  They were in a no-lose position, because they all asked for squillions to do the job.  This saved their mates the politicians from having to really build a tunnel, but if something went wrong and somebody got given a contract, they'd make squillions and squillions, because there was this double entry system of accounting that they all used.

Well Mick didn't wake up to what was going on, so he made a serious attempt at quoting on the job.  He walked down to Circular Quay, checked that both sides of the harbour were level, which isn't really all that silly when you consider how little else in a big city is on the level.  Anyhow, he checked the site, picked up a bit of sandstone to see what it weighed, estimated the distance with his trained bushman's eye, and went off to price tools in a hardware shop.

He reckoned he needed four crowbars, four picks, four shovels, four wheelbarrows, two sweat rags (seeing it was only a small job), and a few other odds and ends.  All up, buying only the best, he reckoned that he could get all the gear for fifteen hundred, he estimated the other costs, mainly food and drink, at three and a half thousand, and he allowed himself six thousand or so, and in the end he offered to do the whole job for eleven thousand.

Well when the politicians saw this quote from Mick, they were amazed, especially as the cheapest prices from the big firms were all for squillions and squillions.  They had a quick chat round the back of Parliament House, and said to each other that if this bloke's on the level (and that was unlikely in a big city like Sydney, they all agreed) but if he's really on the level, they said, well maybe we oughta get the job done.

Then one of the wiser ones suggested that maybe this is a put-up job by the other side, the Opposition, something to do with the election that's coming, and so they called Mick in to look him over and question him extra carefully.

"Look here, Mick," said one of them, "why do you need four of all these tools?  Are you only using four people on the job?"

"No," says Crooked Mick, "I'm doing it all meself."

"Then why do you need four of everything?"

Mick said patiently, like he's talking to a baby, "Because I always use one in each hand."

Well they looked him up and down, and then one of them made the point that while he was quite big, they can't see that he's got any more than the standard issue of everything, including hands.

"Look," says Mick, "I'm going to dig from the north side in the morning, then in the afternoon, I'll get a ferry to town, eat me lunch on the way over, and dig from the south side.  I plan to meet up in the middle on the nineteenth day.  I thought them ferry boat people might get upset if I took me tools across, so I thought I'd have two sets.  Anyhow, the break'll give me tools time to cool down."

This was probably the longest speech Mick ever made, but the politicians weren't impressed.  You see, those blokes'd mag the tail off a Speewah scrub bull before breakfast, and they thought Mick was real taciturn, which made him a threat in their eyes.

Their chief worrier came back with another question.  "What happens if you don't meet up in the middle?" he asks.

"Then you'll get two tunnels for the price of one," says Mick, calm as you like.

Anyhow they had the election the next week, and the other mob got in, and changed everything, which included cancelling the plans for the tunnel.  Still, when the drought broke two days later, Mick upped hooks and went back to the Speewah, and gave the contracting game the miss.  At least when you're shearing, he said, the sheep don't ask stupid questions.


* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.