The Slow Suicide of American Science–ACSH

I’ve always been bullish about American scientific and technological supremacy, not in some starry-eyed, jingoistic way, but due to the simple reality that the United States remains the world’s research and development engine.

This is true for at least four reasons, which I detailed previously: (1) Superior higher education; (2) A cultural attitude that encourages innovation; (3) Substantial funding and financial incentives; and (4) A legal framework that protects intellectual property and tolerates failure through efficient bankruptcy laws. There’s a fifth, fuzzier reason, namely that smart and talented people have long gravitated toward the U.S.

The Slow Suicide of American Science–ACSH

President Grover Cleveland’s Secret Surgery on the Steam Yacht Oneida–Magic Masts and Sturdy Ships

The President stood at the rail of his friend’s yacht, the Oneida, watching the waves from Long Island Sound roll and tumble over each other. His fingers itched for his fishing rod. He had fished from this yacht many times in the past, but this time was different. This time, he faced something more serious than how many fish he caught. His tongue explored the contours of the tumor growing on the roof of his mouth. The economic panic threatened the country like his tumor threatened his mouth. He didn’t want to call it cancer. Cancer, the forbidden word that translated into a person just as forbidden. The operation to remove the growth from his mouth had to remain secret for the good of the country and for the good of his family.

From Magic Masts and Sturdy Ships

Too bad he didn’t choose one of George Warrington’s steam yachts, but alas the Warringtons (and many of Chicago’s grandees) were good Republicans…but that would pay off when Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as Engineering Commissioner of Lighthouses and Lightships a decade later.

This Vessel Served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Peacetime and in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy During World War II — Transportation History

October 2, 1930 USCGC Saranac, one of the Lake-class cutters of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), was officially commissioned as a vessel of that military branch. This cutter had been launched in April of that year at the yards of the General Engineering and Drydock Company in Oakland, California. USCG Captain John Boedker oversaw the […]

This Vessel Served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Peacetime and in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy During World War II — Transportation History

An Aviation Legend Makes His Most Pivotal Contribution to Flight Technology — Transportation History

September 24, 1929 U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) Lieutenant James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who would achieve lasting fame as commander of the Doolittle Raid during World War II, made his most significant contribution to aeronautical technology when he guided a Consolidated N-Y-2 Husky training biplane over Mitchel Field in New York in what was the […]

An Aviation Legend Makes His Most Pivotal Contribution to Flight Technology — Transportation History

Jimmy Doolittle figures in Chet’s aviation story too as a competitor in the first Washington Air Derby (later Langley Day) held in 1932. Chet was the first president of the Washington Air Derby Association.

Don’t Try to Predict Physics (or Much of Anything Else) Without a Model

A salutary note at the end of Rutherford Aris’ Mathematical Modelling Techniques:

When a model is being used as a simulation an obvious comparison can be made between its predictions and the results of the experiment. We are favourably impressed with the model if the agreement is good and if it has not been purchased at the price of too many empirical constant adjusted to fit the data. If the parameters are determined independently and fed into the final model as fixed constant not to be further adjusted, then we can have a fair degree of confidence in the data and in the model. Both model and data have their own integrity the former in the relevance and clarity of its hypotheses and the rigour and appropriateness of its development, the latter in the carefulness of the experimenter and the accuracy of the results. But these virtues do not only inhere in the possessors they also gain validity from the other…Thus the attitude of never believing an experiment until its confirmed by theory has as much to be said for it as that which never believes a theory before its confirmation by experiment. (emphasis mine)

In the comparison of theory with experiment an array of statistical tools is available and should be used. One danger that is easy to overlook is the existence of hidden constancies that will give spurious values…The classic correlation between the intelligence of the children and the drunkenness of the parents which so confounded temperance societies years ago–until it was discovered that all the data came from schools in the east end of London–is another illustration of a data base too narrow to test a model.

As someone who works in the earth sciences, the indiscriminate use of statistics and purely empirical relationships is maddening, and that has spread to many other disciplines as well. The computer power we have at our disposal these days makes it too tempting to simply reduce “big data” and let us “tell us” what’s going on, but this can be a serious mistake without some kind of hypothesis–right or wrong–about what we are looking at.