November 7, 2015
Facts and theories are different things.
They were all natural philosophers
They all estimated the origin of the universe dated to around ~4000 B.C.
If you chose option [c] as your answer, then you are right. This was one of the many things we learnt at the most recent Tilde Café discussion led by Professor Salman Hameed from Hampshire College. Although we had a smaller than usual gathering on a brisk fall afternoon, it was nice to welcome new faces.
Professor Hameed started the afternoon with a different pop quiz with two pictures – the exterior of a natural history museum; and the interior with a mastodon skeleton – which museum was this? The person with the correct answer would receive a DVD on Evolution, produced by PBS. After many guesses, we had a winner – it was the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, an institution overseen by the theocratic state. This then highlighted the question about whether Muslims accept biological evolution, and led into more than an hour long conversation and discussion about evolution in the context of religions and cultures, among other things.
In the course of the afternoon, we heard and perhaps considered some matters for the first time – for example the words ‘science’ and ‘scientist’. In Professor Hameed’s research, when surveying medical professionals who are Muslim in Pakistan, with regards to evolution, he found a mixed response. While the majority acknowledged that humans are products of evolution, a subset of these also noted that in the context of their religion it was not the case. Without going into the details here of his extremely interesting research which he described and which you can catch on the video of the café (click link below), it is clear that Muslims, like any other religious group, are variegated in their acceptance and opinions on biological evolution.
And regarding the word ‘scientist’, it is a fairly new term coined by William Whewell, in 1833. Even the venerable publication Nature accepted it only 60 years after its inaugural issue; until then those who studied science were mostly called ‘natural philosophers’ or even ‘sciencers’. You can search the internet for “Nature scientist substitute word” to see some of the spirited arguments for and against the word in that journal, reflecting the upheaval it caused at that time. Here’s an excellent essay about this topic from science historian Melinda Baldwin – https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/the-history-of-scientist/.
Despite scientific evidence, there seems to be no lull in whether or not the topic of evolution can be included in school textbooks; and included without caveats. Perhaps Stephen Jay Gould has put it most eloquently in saying “…facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.” (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_fact-and-theory.html). Another resource that distinguishes scientific fact from scientific theory can be found at the National Academies website and is worth sharing with those who may conflate the non-scientific use of the word “theory” with the scientific one (http://www.nas.edu/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html). At least in light of the clarity of this, one wonders why there is any debate at all.
September 19, 2015
(In)Tangible to binary – a superb overview of digitization projects.
Greetings and welcome to the first day of autumn!
Tilde Cafe’s eighth season opened on the last Saturday of summer, with excellent weather in place and a riveting story thanks to Professor Holly Rushmeier. We heard about gathering fragments of past cultures and stitching them together in forms that would allow an observer to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of our collective story – human civilization’s story.
Professor Rushmeier’s work showed us how science has enabled opening doors into art history, archaeology and also ancient texts, enriching our ability to experience them. In all the projects that she talked about, there was either an unsolved mystery (the destruction of the Florentine Pieta of Michelangelo); or difficulties in deciphering handwritten manuscripts from the past (Books of Hours); or piecing together Dura-Eurpos from sketches and photos; or developing 3-D renderings of King Khufu and King Khafre’s statues, and King Tutankhamen’s throne. Each of these digitization projects had unique requirements. Thinking outside the proverbial box was essential to design equipment and technologies for the specific digitization process, while needing to exercise exquisite care in handling the objects to be digitized.
For those in attendance who had a limited knowledge of ancient history (such as myself), this cafe was an outstanding opportunity to get a brief look into the past, while also gaining an insight into the challenges that historians and archaeologists are faced with in trying to interpret and also maintain works and sites. Using three-dimensional scanning, multi-spectral imaging and other technologies, advanced computing has begun to make precious works and sites more accessible to scholars, because, as Prof. Rushmeier said, “Digitizing and making numerical models of things is just a means to an end”. One end being making these works accessible not only to scholars, but also to the public. To see how wonderfully accessible some of this work is, visit http://www.eternalegypt.org/ from the comfort of your favorite internet connected device!
While each project described was unique, perhaps what may present the most significant challenges is digitizing handwritten manuscripts particularly because of the uniqueness and variations in how text characters are transcribed. Unlike OCR (optical character recognition) that one has become accustomed to using when scanning and reviewing printed documents, handwritten documents bear little uniformity across pages, never mind from person to person. Consequently, Professor Rushmeier’s current work on digitizing medieval manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library particularly the Books of Hours, is resulting in the development of new methods that could be applied to digitizing other similarly handwritten manuscripts.
It’s difficult to underscore the importance of computing in moving into the future, but it is equally difficult to underscore its significance in ensuring we have a record of our very rich past. Thank you Holly, for making us all sit up and be fascinated and absorbed on a perfect Saturday afternoon at Tilde Cafe.