Reading the World

Archives for The sciences

The Origins of Virtue

The overview of the book touches upon the concept of “Altruism”. Whether one does something for the greater good as an exchange for something in return or not.

In the first chapter, the book describes a prison break of a Prince, Prince Peter Kropotkin. The author narrates that Kropotkin influenced by anarchism joined  a banned organization against the ideology of Marxism which was instilled on the people at that time. During the Prince’s exile, he came across an essay written by Thomas Henry Huxley, who believed that “human nature was essentially selfish and individualistic unless tamed by culture” Whilst Kroptkin argued that man was born virtuous and benevolent, but was corrupted by society”. The author mentions both perspective to try and prove and discover the origins of the human society using different analogies for example a colony of ant, a beehive, a mother and a fetus and many more. It is interesting to see that actually the act of kindness is an act of selfishness even when not intended as the author describes that even our genes shows altruistic behavior and that its in the human nature.

The Curse of Natural Resources

Paul Collier’s ‘The Bottom Billion’ was one of my chosen summer books and an interesting, and thought changing view of natural resources caught my attention. Labelled as ‘The Natural Resource Trap’ chapter 6 of ‘The Bottom Billion’ describes how resources can act as a trap for developing countries trying to escape poverty.

A country with abundant natural resources, you may feel, is exceedingly lucky. Although on the face of it, large quantities of resources may seem to be a key and fundamental factor in economic development and growth, when you look into it, natural resources (in abundance) appear to be a greater hindrance in a free market economy, than they do of benefit. The first issue is that of foreign exchange. When goods and services are exported, they generate foreign exchange. That is, when a foreign importer demands the goods your country is exporting, they have to purchase these goods in your domestic currency (or at least, you later naturally exchange their currency for yours), thus they have to exchange a certain amount of their currency for yours on the exchange market. The result of such an exchange is that the demand for your currency rises, leading to an appreciation of your currency (your currency becomes more expensive/ stronger), and that there is a larger amount of foreign exchange domestically available. Now, exporters create foreign exchange and importers need this foreign exchange, in order to import goods/ services from abroad (because they too have to purchase the goods in the exporter’s currency).

So, what is the problem with this? Well, simply and firstly, with a stronger currency, imports become cheaper, or in other words, domestically produced goods become relatively more expensive. The result of such a situation is the diversion of demand from domestic markets to international markets. Not only that, but items that cannot be traded internationally also become more expensive relative to other goods (which can be traded internationally), therefore resources get diverted to producing these domestic goods (the allocative function of a free market). Therefore, resources get diverted away from industries which could export before and towards domestically focused markets. The issue with this is, exporters in infant industries (new underdeveloped industries), due to the appreciation of the currency, can no longer survive on the international market, and so, in developing stages of the economy, the discovery of natural resources can cause great harm. The economy becomes reliant upon the natural resources, in order to fund its imports, and future sustainable growth is greatly affected. The dutch disease theory suggests this, that appreciation caused by the discovery of natural resources (or aid for that matter) causes other, more sustainable and developing export industries to become uncompetitive, and thus fail to fully develop.

Secondly, as the former hinders growth greatly, a result is that entrepreneurial efforts in developing countries are far less successful and so, a reliance on developed countries (which import these resources) becomes greater and greater. The level of unemployment, if the resources are in capital intensive fields, may also rise substantially resulting in a demoralizing colonial psychology to the country as they rely on the developed countries. If these resources were only used domestically, then of course, the issue ceases to exist but in a perfectly free market economy, this would seldom occur. The situation would have to be unique in so far that the costs of extraction were such that when coupled with transport costs, it ceased to be profitable to export however when transported only domestically, they were sufficiently competitive with international markets (the world price of that resource).

Thirdly, the issue of inequality becomes even more significant. The distribution of wealth is usually, in resource rich countries, highly skewed to the few who own the resources. Equally, corruption becomes a far greater threat and the wealth of the few, is often greater due to it. A lack of regulation allows deals to be made discretely by public officials, without a fair auction. The threat and probability of civil war also becomes ever greater due to the increased inequality and, the ability to fund such wars with the capturing of the natural resources (and future financial prospects from setting up such deals).

A Nearly Short History of Nearly Everything – Lost in the Cosmos

This is a science book from Bill Bryson. He categorized the book into six sections-Lost in the Cosmos, The Size of the Earth, A New Age Dawns, Dangerous Planet, Life Itself and The Road to Us. I would recommend everyone to read the book even they’re not really interested in science because the book is great and Bryson didn’t use a lot of weird scientific terms so it’s easy to understand.

The more I read about the universe the more I think it shares a lot of similarities to my future. We get a glimpse of what the universe is like but we are not certain of the knowledge we know. Bill Bryson described about cosmology in this book “There’re lots of things that we don’t know, or at least, we thought we know.”

A deduction from the cosmological observations (cosmic microwave background, large scale structure, Hubble diagram) and cumbersome calculations has been concluded and widely approved that the Big Bang – the moment when an infinitely dense bundle of energy suddenly burst outward, expanding in three spatial directions and gradually cooling down as it did so- forms a universe.

Although many physicists agree, then why there is a big fuss about it? Well. The Big Bang theory does not provide any concreted explanation for the initial condition. Before the Big Bang there is no time before t=0, no directions, or no dimensions whatsoever. So does this means that before the Big Bang nothing exists? Or is this universe is a sub universe of multiverse? “So we are struck with a theory, and we do not know whether it is right or wrong, but we do know that it is a little wrong, or at least incomplete.” said by Richard Feynman in Six Easy Pieces.

Similarly to the universe, I get a vague idea about my future-going to college, get a job after graduation, and so on. But I’m not certain of the college I’ll be enrolling next year, but hopefully my first choice, nor I know which job I’ll be taking after my graduation. There are trillion possibilities. Just like the number of way we can use a boring blank sheet of A4 paper; origami, calendar, bag, stickers, etc.

But to look from the other perspective, it’s good that I have only a vague about future. If I know that my first choice university accepts me, I will, obviously, slack off. Or, if I know that many universities reject my application, I will work harder until I know I will get in. So this unclear picture of the future encourages me to put all of my effort in from the beginning but also learn and, at the same time, grow up from the mistakes I make.

The pattern on the stone – Computations is more than what meets the eye

By reading ‘The pattern on the stone’ by W. Daniel Hillis I explored the main conceptual ideas behind computer science. Starting at a very basic level, this book slowly evolved into teaching the user about the ‘insides’ of a computer and the way in which technological computation is used in everyday life.

A common misconception amongst people about the topic of ‘computer science’ is that it is nothing but programming, this book clearly dispells this misconception within the first few lines and gives a clear informative description of what computer science is, and compares to an ‘engine in a car’, made up of many small parts which on its own has no use, but when put together and given to the right person, can be made into anything possible.

As the book progresses it explores more intriquite computational ideas, mainly focusing on data structure, computational hierachy and logic bases. The book explains to us that computers don’t necessarily require technology and can be made using mere gears, wooden poles and string if you know what you are doing. As a computer is just a mean of translating a human’s instructions into a machine. Programming is just the ‘tool’ or ‘language’ required to translate human code to the binary language made up of 1’s and 0’s that a computer can understand.

The book also gives the reader questions to think about as they progress through the book, to habilitate to the reader’s interest in the subject. These questions are usually based on what was said in the previous chapter in the book, to make sure that the reader understand’s what was said in the chapter.

As I reached the end of the book I felt a greater understanding about the idealogy of computer science, and the understanding of the way computers work the way they do. This book broadened my knowledge of computer science and helped make sure that the future that I am paving for myself on the way to university and beyond is the right choice.


Chemical Storylines

Chemical Storylines is about science in the practical context at a level beyond what we learn at school. It explores many interesting topics that are going on in the real world, for example, genetic engineering, coping carbon in the future, the history of dyes and its connection with the artists back in the day etc. I chose to read this book because I wanted to learn more about the science industry and to find out whether or not I will enjoy studying a science-related major when i’m at university.

Although there are many interesting topics relating directly to what I have learned in physics and chemistry classes, my favorite part about this book is about what is going on behind the scenes in the chemical industry. I have learned about the “business” part in the chemical industry where engineers have to evaluate the scale of production, capital investment required, size of the potential market, profits and competition. There is also an issue about social responsibility and waste management which is becoming more and more important to society. After reading this last chapter, I realized that there is a lot more to science apart from the knowledge in the science textbooks and that in order to be able to work in such industry excellent  practical and communicational skills are also needed. Cooperates need someone who is able to adapt to any situations, has a sense of creativity and work as a team.

The book really gave me the confidence to choose my major in the engineering field and also the motivation to be an engineer. But what type of engineer is the question. That is what I have to find out next.

Chemical Storylines: Ways of making colors

The natural world is full of color. Some colors like the blur of the sky or the colors in a rainbow, are produced by the refraction of light. But in most cases, color is due to the presence of colored compounds and arises from the way these compound interact with light.

For tens of thousands of years, humans made coloring agents from minerals they found in rocks, so the colors produced were mostly dull and earthy. These minerals pigments were mixed with oil or mud to form a paste which would stick to surfaces. This was fine until people learnt to weave and make fabrics. When paste-like pigments were applied to fabrics, the cloth became stiff and the coloring material soon fell out. Pigments were no good for coloring cloth. Cloth could only be colored by soaking it in a solution of dye. The difference between a dye and a pigment is that a dye is a soluble substance whereas a pigment is insoluble.

Dyes came from both plants and animals. Many early dyes come from crushed berries or plant juices. Woad plant is extracted to give an indigo dye which is still used to color blue jeans today. Small insects which live on the Opuntia cactus also produce the red dye. These were used to produce the bright red jackets of the Brigade of Guards. You may have eaten it as food coloring!

Dyes and pigments had a great impact on society once it was found: they drew a line between the wealthy people and the poor. This was because dyes and pigments were expensive and not affordable by the poorer ones. Ordinary people wore clothes dyed with cheap vegetable dyes – the colors were often drab and quickly faded. The physical appearance then became a representation of one’s wealth and the desire for materialistic lifestyle began to flourish. This seems almost ironic because colors are often associated with one’s brilliant energy and liveliness but in reality that was not always the case. The ordinary people ,who were not money-oriented, were more likely to be at peace than the wealthy ones who usually search for more possessions with greed. This demonstrates the conflict between one’s physical appearance and peace of mind which is also a shameful but inevitable issue in modern society.

The great breakthrough came when chemists learnt how to make colored substances in the laboratory. The starting materials for the new synthetic dyes were cheap as they came from coal tar, an unwanted by-product of the new coal gas industry. This created a whole range of entirely new colored compounds available at a low cost.

Modern color chemists need to understand not only why compounds are colored, and which structures lead to particular structures but also how to bind colored substances to different types of fibres and surfaces. Once the chemistry is understood, it becomes possible to design a colored molecule for a particular purpose: color by design.

Chemical Storylines : Aspirin from myth to modern use

Modern pharmacy has its origins in folklore and the history of medicine abounds with herbal and folk remedies.

Willow tree has a chemical substance which can be converted by our body into salicylic acid, a very important ingredient in making the widely known and effective pain killer, aspirin. In 400BC, the brew of willow leaves was thought to ease the pain of childbirth and in 1763 The Reverend Edward Stone, an English clergyman from Oxfordshire used a willow bark tree to reduce fevers. The reason for this was built upon the “Doctrine of Signatures”, a pharmaceutical theory at the current time, which said that remedies lie not far off from their causes. In the past, the marshy ground was thought to breed fevers and so it can be inferred from the theory that the bark and leaves of willow trees which often grew there were tried as a remedy against fever. Although the “Doctrine of Signatures” was not scientifically proven and lacked credibility, it is now known that there is a compound in willow bark and leaves which does have an effect in curing fevers.

The compound needs to be extracted through complicated recipe written by the 17th-century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper. Once consumed the body then converts it by hydrolysis and oxidation into the active chemical, salicylic acid. In the 1900s, chemists finally found a way to produce such compound artificially which means that they do not need to rely on the willow tree anymore. This method is much more independent and profitable as the supply is not dependent on weather conditions and not liable to contamination. It also allowed a large-scale production of aspirin which was much needed during the World War I and II.

Nowadays, aspirin is used not only to reduce fever and relieve pain, it is also used to treat strokes by reducing the stickiness of platelets in the blood so that they do not clump together and form clots.

This also serves as an example which shows that the Mother of Nature has given us tools for healthy living and survival.Therefore, we should, in turn, give back to her by protecting the environment, cleaning up the mess we made and leaving it the way it was found.

Discovered: the “God Particle”

You’ve likely caught wind of the exciting announcement that two teams of scientists believe they have discovered the long-theorized Higgs Boson, or “God Particle.” If the research withstands scrutiny, and is upheld in future research, the discovery lends credence to the half-century old Standard Model in Physics.

For a good summary of what this all means, here’s a nice article by science journalist Dennis Overbye in The New York Times. 

The BBC Magazine also has a curious article on what they call the “poetry” of naming in particle physics: Gluon, Boson, Neutrino, etc.

There is great poetry in science–but this quality of wonder that has been part of scientific inquiry and discovery is, unfortunately, sometimes lost. In this excerpt from the poem “God Particles,” by Filipino-American poet R.A. Villanueva, I think we get a glimpse of this wonder at what the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius called “the Nature of Things”:

Miles beneath Geneva the men dig
with shovels and picks, churn
the bedrock with tumblers and water

-drills.Soon, tunnels will run
beneath the Jura watershed
into France, will be held

together with pipes and bolts,
supercooled magnets in triplet
arrays. There will be beams

of light, diodes in measured pulses.
If the God particle exists, they promise,
we will hold it—there, in the instant

between nothingness and mass.

Who cares about the transit of Venus?

Yesterday saw the last transit of Venus until 2117 (when I will be 139 years old). While cloudy in Bangkok, many around the world were able to see this rare, wondrous event: my friend Jenny got to see it from the big island Hawai’i before she went out surfing; my brother watched it from the ruins of an old observatory in Sarajevo that had been destroyed during the Bosnian War.

But, you (and others) may ask, who cares about the transit of Venus?

Here’s a nice reflection on National Public Radio (U.S.) by a professor of astrophysics, Adam Frank. He’s the author of About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.