Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nerds and Words: Week 11

I have dug through the Internet this week and uncovered all this geeky goodness. You can find the thousands of links from previous weeks here.

I have marked my favorite links with a 8. Enjoy.

Science to Read, Watch

Take a breath, thank a sponge? Following the chain of events back to the origin of oxygenated animals

When you screw with your sense of self, it’s harder to form memories

8 Do lobsters feel pain when we cook them, alive, like monsters? Maybe. Scientists disagree

“The science of cognitive training has not kept up with the hype” (i.e., they don’t work).

15 minutes of “pit stop science” with a great white is something I’ll always want to do

The “new car smell” became a status marker after WWI, but the chemicals have toxic roots

On the physics of flying snakes and our unhappiness with them on our planes

8 How repetition lets music work its magic, work its magic, magic

If you’re an unfortunate wasp, you might have junk in your trunk. It’s not fat. It’s a hellish parasite.

Hard Science updates a classic science demo with DUBSTEP. Put this in your classroom

The enemy of my enemy is a spider-eating ant

Spiders building in the city get spun over (read: screwed over) twice

Sorting through a new study that claims light exposure may help memory

Putting the cancer cases around Fukushima into (important) epidemiological perspective

Really hope that when astronomers see this gas cloud pass by the galactic core, it dies spectacularly like this

An animation that is like an open house for a small slice of the universe

This terror bird was the hangover for the small mammals having their “yay no more dinosaurs” party

How do you find a planet without a star (and maybe with native laser-sharks)?

8 Figuring out when whales evolved the ability to sing through their noses to see

Looking for the right genetic factors for obesity in the wrong place

8 The fascinating (and controversial) physics of curling

Naming a new tyrannosaur after the polar bear

Elephants are so much smarter than most of us think. Just check out how they hear human voices

What is the resolution of the human eye? It’s a tricky question that doesn’t have a great answer

Eating a certain plant makes rabbit’s pee blue

Practicing 10,000 hours doesn’t necessarily make perfect, says new study

How cracking something can make it stronger (even your teeth!)

8 To study asteroid impacts, sometimes we film metal balls hitting sand in slo-mo. It’s so, so beautiful

Extreme Nerdery

This scifi short–Project Skyborn–is better than anything on the Syfy channel right now. Go ahead and check

8 My proudest moment as a writer: We Finally Have A Name For Scooby Doo’s Speech Disorder

Scooby’s real name is “Scoobert”. Cookie Monster’s name is Sid, you know, before he got addicted.

Only 1, maybe 2 situations in life where you will need this, so here it is: Riker and Picard being awesome for 10 hours

“Why do you try to make something magical scientific?” I could not agree more with this author’s answers

We think we want intelligent AI in our video games but, “Most players still take the bait like tween girls on Edward Cullen”

8 Dad-of-the-year contender spends 6 months animating himself and his son into Dragon Ball Z

What if “radar enforced” really meant stopping a car with pure, terrible radiation? A lot of car-plasma


Garfield Minus Garfield is a comic that shows one man’s descent into absolute madness

Sciencey GIFs and Images

8 Have you ever really looked at an animal who has a relatively long neck swallow something? It’s awesome/bizarre

I prefer anatomical drawings where our lungs are filled with flowers and our muscles writhe with snakes

The Smithsonian captured this incredible footage of a bird’s flight dexterity and I can’t stop watching

Holy crap, this parrot is actually a woman posing in bodypaint

Astronomy is paradoxically one of the few places where lay people can overestimate large numbers

And that is how Pi is related to the circumference of a circle!

8 I have never seen a pelican spider before. Jeez are they bizarre

Angler catches albino marlin before its defect got it killed by something else

One of my favorite all-time GIFs has to be of the “Prince Rupert’s Drop” by Smarter Every Day

Extremely effective graphic shows the scale of the search for flight MH370

The Wellcome Image award winner is amazing, and a kidney stone is an alien world (#2)

8 How do you test the impact force on an F-4 Phantom? Get a rocket sled and watch the fireworks

Always an amazing story: A leopard seal “feeds” a photographer

Jasper Nance took this incredible photo of some (unidentified) pupa

The best visualization of a sonic boom you will ever see, thanks to VHS and a very low-flying jet

When an ice cap on Mars looks like a cerebral cortex

Nature’s NSA

When you release a spacesuit into space, it looks like a terrifying, real-life ‘Gravity’

Hard to look at violin playing the same way after watching this

8 Alexander Semenov is the undisputed king of underwater photography. These worms prove it

More things (read: fluid dynamics) happen to airplane wings than you get to see

I know we want to commercialize spider silk and all, but I feel bad for this spider

One way to visualize ALL the RGB colors without repeating. A new color in each pixel

Pop Culture Happenings

8 The top five YouTube gamers have more subscribers than Peru has people. They make millions

Pre-ordering the hell out of xkcd’s upcoming “What If” book

What is Vi Hart doing? We don’t know but we keep watching

Are You Better Than The Average American At Science? (It isn’t hard to be)

What’s the best animal analog for these awesome “strandbeest” toys? A robo-crab?

8 60 GIFs of the part in infomercials where the people can’t do anything right

Homeopathy judged useless and unethical

Does the new Cosmos really get how science is communicated today? Maybe not

Pharmacist prescribes “anti-monster spray”, wins internet

“After you die, a piece of you may end up in an aeroplane, a wind turbine, or even another person.”

Snail-eating worm threatens escargot supply

Hmm. Cosmos may have picked the wrong “hero” for independent, critical thought

The president did Between Two Ferns and it’s pretty funny


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Saturday, August 9, 2014

From Neo-Fascism To Neurophysiology: The Strange Story of the INPP

Will Mandy drew my attention to a worrying piece of neurosensationalism at BBC News:

Modern life damaging infant brains, charity warns

The charity is called Watch? and it seems fairly inoffensive, but one of the speakers at the Watch? conference (which prompted the article) is Sally Goodard Blythe from the ‘Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology’ (INPP) in Chester, England. This latter organisation has a rather remarkable history.

brain1The INPP’s About Us page says

The INPP was set up in 1975 by Psychologist Peter Blythe PhD*. to research into the effects of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system on learning outcomes, emotional functioning and behaviour.

That * leads us to a footnote which reads

INPP is an apolitical organization. It does not reflect or support any political, cultural, social or religious ideology or the personal views of its members or former members.

Well, that’s good to hear. Because if they did reflect the ideology of their members, let’s say, of their founder, then they would be a fascist organization. Quite literally. For, according to his Telegraph obituary, their late founder Peter Huxley-Blythe (his full name) was an active neo-fascist:

A vehement anti-communist who admired strong leadership, after WW2 Huxley-Blythe became involved in various extreme-Right groups. He became an associate of the American political thinker Francis Parker Yockey, founder of the European Liberation Front (ELF, a small neo-fascist group that split from Mosley’s British Union Movement in 1948), and of Guy Chesham and Baroness von Pflugl who helped to finance the publication of Yockey’s Imperium (1948), in which he argued for the creation of a fascist united Europe to defend Western culture.

The ELF’s “12-point plan” demanded “the immediate expulsion of all Jews and other parasitic aliens from the Soil of Europe” and the “cleansing of the Soul of Europe from the ethical syphilis of Hollywood”. Huxley-Blythe became the editor of Frontfighter, the ELF’s journal, and later on, in the 1950s, published the newsletter of a British-German group Natinform (Nationalist Information Bureau)…

In addition, with Roger Pearson, he helped to organise the Northern League, a neo-Nazi organisation dedicated to saving the “Nordic race” from the “annihilation of our kind” and to fighting for survival “against forces which would mongrelise our race and civilisation” (leading members included the former Nazi eugenicist Hans Günther)…

…Peter Huxley-Blythe is survived by his wife, Sally [Goddard Blythe, current director of INPP International].

Still, that was a long time ago. Perhaps we should instead judge the INPP by their current supporters. Unfortunately, there are a number of eyebrow-raising individuals associated with the INPP. In recent years, their conference has hosted speakers such as…

* Dr Richard Halvorsen, a British doctor who writes about vaccines causing autism.

If we are to allow the human soul to dwell within its connection to the creative mind of God, it is self evident that society must turn its attention to children because their energies are the most susceptible to change.

She also believes that Energy and Memory are what give stem cells their power:

In a sentence, the ability of stem cells to re-generate, re-engage and re-organize damaged structures of FORM and FUNCTION are directly dependant on the templates of Memories and the Energies that give life to and drive Body, Mind and Soul.

* “Dr.” Curtis T. Cripe, “PhD.” , or Mr. Cripe as the US Bankruptcy Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit (judgement of 20th Feb 2014) more accurately calls him:

[In 2001] the Cripes [Mr. Cripe and his wife] represented … that Mr. Cripe held a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Saybrook Institute…

[however] although Mr. Cripe ultimately did obtain a Ph. D. in November 2003, that degree was from Barrington University, a non-accredited school. Mr. Cripe’s faculty advisor for his dissertation in psychology held degrees in Interior Design, not psychology. Mr. Cripe’s “attendance” was completely on-line.

When Cripe’s business partner found out about this, around 2008, she broke off relations with him. This set in motion a series of legal claims and counterclaims, the outcome of which was that Cripe filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. Cripe spoke not once but twice at the INPP conference, in 2007 and in 2009. He’s also listed on some websites as a representative of the INPP franchise in the USA.

Oh dear. But then again, just because INPP are linked to some dubious people, that doesn’t mean that their ideas are wrong. Their idea is that many childhood problems (including ADHD, Asperger’s, difficulty riding bikes, and problems learning maths) can be caused by ‘neurodevelopmental delay’ (NDD), a failure of the maturing brain to appropriately inhibit the primitive motor reflexes, seen in babies, that are normally switched off later in life. INPP offer ‘interventions‘ (prices: by request only) to try to fix these imbalances.

I will leave it to others to evaluate these claims – perhaps neuroblogger and developmental psychologist Prof Dorothy Bishop, who wrote about Sally Goddard Blythe and her claims about parenting previously. Bishop wrote that…

Mrs Goddard Blythe is entitled to her views. My concern is with the blurring of the distinction between opinion and evidence. When a view about effects of parenting is widely promulgated on national media, and is expressed by someone who is described as a consultant in neurodevelopmental education and Director of an Institute, the natural assumption is made that (a) they are speaking from a position of authority, and (b) they have some hard evidence. In this case, neither appears to be true.

A link to that article appears, strangely, on the INPP’s website, and even more strangely it appears under the heading “Published articles by Sally Goddard Blythe”.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Here We Go Again: Massive Dust Storms Pummel High Plains

here we go again Two huge dust storms are visible in Colorado and Texas in this mosaic of satellite images captured on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 by NASA’s Terra satellite. (Source: NASA)

Just a week ago, I posted some imagery of an intense dust storm sweeping south through the High Plains. Well, here we go again…

Today, high winds triggered two dust storms, one in Colorado stretching into Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, and the other in the Texas Panhandle — the same region as last week’s storm. They were so big that they are clearly visible in a mosaic of images from NASA’s Terra satellite showing almost all of the United States. (See above.)

Here’s an animation of two close-up images of the Colorado dust storm, the first taken by Terra and the second taken later in the day by the spacecraft’s sister satellite, Aqua:

here we go again An animation of two satellite images shows the spreading Colorado dust storm. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Here’s what it looked like on the ground today in Holly, Colorado:

As I mentioned last week, the March 11 U.S. Drought Monitor map shows this region in the grips of severe drought.

Echoes of the Dust Bowl…

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Oldest Case of Cancer Discovered in Ancient Skeleton

Lesions in the right scapula of a 3,200-year-old skeleton indicate the presence of cancer. A radiograph image of the right scapular blade is on the right. The arrows indicate location of lesions. (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum) Lesions in the right scapula of a 3,200-year-old skeleton indicate the presence of cancer. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

We tend to think of cancer as a modern disease, a result of our unhealthy lifestyles, environment and our sheer longevity. But it appears ancient humans weren’t unfamiliar with the disease. British researchers recently uncovered the oldest example of human cancer in a 3,200-year-old male skeleton.

The skeleton was found last year at an archeological site in northern Sudan. Researchers estimate that the man was 25 to 35 years old at the time of death, and was laid to rest in 1200 B.C. Their analysis of the skeleton has since revealed evidence of metastatic carcinoma throughout the body. Metastatic carcinoma is a type of cancer that originates in epithelial tissue and has spread to other parts of the body.

This is the oldest complete skeleton of a human displaying metastatic cancer. Scientists have previously discovered several older examples of cancer in skeletal fragments, but there are doubts regarding diagnosis in these specimens, the researchers say. The finding could help researchers learn more about the underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, and could shed light on the evolution of the disease.

The skeleton of the adult male excavated from Sudan, the skeleton shows signs of metastatic carcinoma. (Courtesy: Trustees of the British Museum) The skeleton of the adult male excavated from Sudan. Courtesy: Trustees of the British Museum

Researchers detected small bone lesions in the man’s skeleton using radiography and a scanning electron microscope. Based on the shape of the lesions, they determined the only likely cause was a malignant soft-tissue tumor. Imaging of the skeleton showed tumors on the man’s collarbone, upper arms, shoulder blades and several other locations throughout the body. The researchers published their findings Monday in the journal PLOS One.

The exact origin of the cancer is impossible to determine, researchers said in a news release. Further, the cause of the man’s cancer is purely speculative, but researchers posit two possible explanations. First, carcinogenic effects of smoke are well known, and ancient houses in that region of Sudan featured hearths and bread ovens in small, poorly ventilated spaces. It’s possible that long-term exposure to smoke doomed the young man.

Researchers also cited infectious disease as a plausible cause for the man’s cancer. Some infections can lead to cancer, and an infection called schistosomiasis has plagued inhabitants of that region since at least 1500 B.C. Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by parasitic worms that affects the urinary tract or intestines. The disease is now recognized as a common cause of bladder cancer.

An ancient Egyptian medical text, called the Edwin Smyth Papyrus, dates back to 1600 B.C. and is widely believed to contain the earliest known reference to a cancerous tumor.  There’s evidence of cancer in roughly 200 individuals in the human fossil record, which seems like a very small number. It’s led to speculation that the disease didn’t ravage ancient peoples like it does modern ones.

But although archaeological evidence is rare, it doesn’t mean cancer was nonexistent in ancient times, as George Johnson explained in a recent Discover article:

Except for a few rare cases in mummies, only bone tumors will be found — those originating in skeletal tissue or spreading there from other sites.  These count for only a small fraction of all cancers. About 90 percent are carcinomas, tumors forming in the epithelial tissues that line the organs and cavities of the body and form the skin.

Even when cancer digs into the bones, Johnson said, the telltale lesions might not survive the test of time. Thus, we could be underestimating the rates of cancer in early civilizations.

When you factor out carcinogens in cigarettes, processed food, chemical factories and poor diets that bombard us today, the baseline cancer rate is probably similar to what it was thousands of years ago, Johnson wrote.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Here We Go Again: Massive Dust Storms Pummel High Plains

here we go again Two huge dust storms are visible in Colorado and Texas in this mosaic of satellite images captured on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 by NASA’s Terra satellite. (Source: NASA)

Just a week ago, I posted some imagery of an intense dust storm sweeping south through the High Plains. Well, here we go again…

Today, high winds triggered two dust storms, one in Colorado stretching into Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, and the other in the Texas Panhandle — the same region as last week’s storm. They were so big that they are clearly visible in a mosaic of images from NASA’s Terra satellite showing almost all of the United States. (See above.)

Here’s an animation of two close-up images of the Colorado dust storm, the first taken by Terra and the second taken later in the day by the spacecraft’s sister satellite, Aqua:

here we go again An animation of two satellite images shows the spreading Colorado dust storm. (Images: NASA. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Here’s what it looked like on the ground today in Holly, Colorado:

As I mentioned last week, the March 11 U.S. Drought Monitor map shows this region in the grips of severe drought.

Echoes of the Dust Bowl…

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Power of Conscious Intention Proven At Last?

A neuroscience paper published before Christmas draw my eye with the expansive title: “How Thoughts Give Rise to Action“

Subtitled “Conscious Motor Intention Increases the Excitability of Target-Specific Motor Circuits”, the article’s abstract was no less bold, concluding that:

These results indicate that conscious intentions govern motor function… until today, it was unclear whether conscious motor intention exists prior to movement, or whether the brain constructs such an intention after movement initiation.

The authors, Zschorlich and Köhling of the University of Rostock, Germany, are weighing into a long-standing debate in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, concerning the role of consciousness in controlling our actions.

To simplify, one school of thought holds that (at least some of the time), our intentions or plans control our actions. Many people would say that this is what common sense teaches us as well.

But there’s an alternative view, in which our consciously-experienced intentions are not causes of our actions but are actually products of them, being generated after the action has already begun. This view is certainly counterintuitive, and many find it disturbing as it seems to undermine ‘free will’.

That’s the background. Zschorlich and Köhling say that they’ve demonstrated that conscious intentions do exist, prior to motor actions, and that these intentions are accompanied by particular changes in brain activity. They claim to have done this using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a way of causing a localized modulation of brain electrical activity.

TMS of the motor cortex can cause muscle twitches, because this part of the brain controls our muscles. In 14 healthy volunteers, Zschorlich and Köhling aimed TMS at the area responsible for controlling movements of the left arm. Importantly, they adjusted the strength of the pulse so that it was only just strong enough to cause a tiny twitch (as measured using electrodes over the muscles of the left wrist themselves).

Remarkably, however, they found that if people were ‘consciously intending’ to flex their wrist, the same weak TMS pulse prompted a strong flexion response. Whereas if the volunteer was intending to extend their wrist, the very same pulse caused an extension movement.

Here’s an example from one representative subject, showing the differences in muscle activity in the flexing (FCR) and extending (ECR) muscles of the wrist following the TMS pulses:

intention_brainThe authors hypothesize that the brain’s ‘intention network’ prepares desired actions by increasing the excitability of the cells in the motor cortex that can produce the movement intended. On this view, a weak TMS pulse provides just enough extra activation to trigger those pre-excited cells into firing, while being too weak to activate cells that govern other movements.


It’s an interesting model and these are striking results, from a beautifully simple experiment. My only concern is that it might be too simple. There was no control condition for the TMS: every TMS pulse was real.

It would have been better to have used a control, either a ‘sham’ pulse, or a real TMS pulse over a different part of the brain. I say that because – unless I’m missing something here – we don’t actually know that the TMS pulse was triggering the wrist movements. The volunteers got to trigger the TMS themselves:

Volunteers were asked to develop an intention [...] and to trigger the TMS with the right index finger if the urge to move was greatest before any overt motor output at the wrist.

As far as I can see, volunteers could simply have been pressing the TMS button and then moving their wrist of their own accord. Ironically, they might not have consciously intended to do this; they might have really believed that their movements were being externally triggered (by the TMS) even though they themselves were generating them. This can happen: it’s called the ideomotor phenomenon, and is probably the explanation for why people believe in ‘dowsing’ amongst other things.

All we know for sure, as I understand it, is that 1. their right hand pushed a button, 2. TMS happened, and 3. their left wrist moved. We don’t know that 2 caused 3. A control TMS condition would have allowed us to know whether the TMS was really involved – and, perhaps, whether conscious intention or unconscious ideomotor acts were governing those errant wrists.

ResearchBlogging.orgZschorlich VR, & Köhling R (2013). How thoughts give rise to action – conscious motor intention increases the excitability of target-specific motor circuits. PloS ONE, 8 (12) PMID: 24386291

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Battle of the "Cosmos," Round 3

The new Cosmos show is doing an inspirational job bringing the wonders of science to a mass audience. There was one segment of the first episode where I thought the writers went off-track, however. In an earlier post I described my concern about how that episode  depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno and his role in the discovery of the infinite universe. My column prompted a reply from Cosmos co-writer Steven Soter, along with my further thoughts.

The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox) The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox)

Now, the third and final round: Soter offers some closing commentary on the matter, which appear below.

Inevitably, this dialogue has grown increasingly detailed, focused on the thoughts and actions of men who lived more than 400 years ago. To some readers the whole discussion may seem like nitpicking (a few have said as much in the comments), but I think it is greatly important. It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion. It is a window into the dramatic ways our conception of the universe has changed in modern times. And I must say, it is a tribute to Soter–and the whole Cosmos project–that he is taking the time to respond and share these ideas with the whole world.

The Case for Bruno, by Steven Soter

Your suggestion that Giordano Bruno was not the first to realize that the stars are suns is mistaken. You cited his predecessor Nicolas of Cusa, who referred in one passage to “the earth, the sun, or another star.” But Cusa did not mean that the sun is another star as we understand the term. Throughout his book, he used the word “star” indifferently to refer to the earth, the moon, the sun and the planets, as was common in his time. He also distinguished them from the “fixed stars” on the surface of the eighth celestial sphere. His pre-Copernican conception of the solar system was antithetical to any notion of the stars as other suns.

You claimed that “Cosmos confusingly presents Bruno’s infinite cosmology as a physical theory of the universe”, because Bruno believed the planets and stars had souls. It is true that Bruno’s worldview was vitalistic and magical. He imagined that the Earth had a soul like the other planets. But he passionately believed in the physical reality of the planets and suns, all made of the same material elements as understood in his time. He wrote:

“. . . every one of those bodies, stars, worlds and eternal lights is composed of that which is named earth, water, air and fire . . . Those in whose composition fire predominates will be called sun, bright in itself. If water predominates, we give the name telluric body, moon or such like which shines by borrowed light . . .” Bruno was the first to recognize this fundamental distinction between stars and planets.

Bruno described a universe of  “innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow . . . In it are an infinity of worlds similar to our own, and of the same kind.” He urged his readers to “dissolve the notion that our earth is unique . . . we may perceive the likeness of our own and of all other stars . . . the substance of the other worlds throughout the ether is even as that of our own world.” Bruno made it as clear as he could, using the rudimentary understanding of matter available in his time, that this was a physical theory of the universe.

You said that Bruno took “a big step backward by interpreting the universe more in theological than mathematical terms.” Bruno was neither a mathematician nor a scientist, and his mind was not modern by any means. But he was without doubt the first to imagine a universe resembling the one we know today.

Again, you claimed that Bruno’s cosmology “was not a correct scientific idea, nor was it even a guess as Cosmos asserts. It was a religious and philosophical statement.” However you characterize Bruno’s cosmology has no bearing on its essential correctness. Can we expect a philosopher living in a world steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark at the dawn of modern science, to see things in modern terms? Scattered among his many pages of metaphysical nonsense are nuggets of pure gold. We should be grateful for them and not expect more.

Finally you claimed that Thomas Digges, “far more than Bruno, built on the tradition of Copernicus and sought to bring more of the universe into the grasp of math and geometry.” Digges made a major contribution by extending the realm of the stars into infinite space, but he then veered back from reality by describing the stars as “the palace of felicity . . . the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy.” He is talking about the traditional theological heaven, not the material universe.

It was Bruno who used the opening made by Copernicus to give us the first glimpse of the modern astrophysical cosmos. And that was no incremental step. It was a giant leap.

Some Closing Reflections, by Corey S. Powell

It is crucial to remember that neither Bruno nor Digges was thinking about the universe in modern terms. This is, I think, one of the most meaningful upshots of this whole conversation. There is a natural tendency to project our current conceptions onto people who lived long ago. That leads to two kinds of errors.

First, we sometimes regard ourselves as inherently smarter than those in the past, simply because we start from a place of greater understanding. Such casual arrogance overlooks the incredible efforts required by people like Bruno, Digges, and thousands–no, millions–of others who have contributed to science and to the great march of human knowledge.

Second, there is a tempting inclination to view the past as a prelude toward an inevitable present. This attitude, which has been known to afflict academics as well, is known as Whig history. I still think Cosmos fell prey to this error, in trying to make Bruno’s universe look too much like our own. Seen in clear-eyed historical context, Bruno’s views still strongly resembled the spiritually ordered Church universe of the time–not to mention the philosophies of his ancient Greek influences, Lucretius and Anaxagoras.

Soter beautifully describes Bruno as “steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark.” In that context, his conception of an infinite universe full of stars and planets was an astonishing leap of insight–but it was still a theological one more than a conceptual one. Conversely, Digges made brave moves to create a cosmological model that blended the idea of a sun-centered solar system with infinite space–but he still regarded the expanse beyond our solar system as the realm of the angels.

In truth, it took both Bruno and Digges (and their many successors) to build–slowly, incrementally, with many stumbles along the way–toward our modern understanding of the universe. My biggest concern is that, in presenting Bruno as a lone hero and a lone martyr, Cosmos missed a fabulous opportunity to convey this communal and cumulative aspect of science.

In taking time to share his thoughts here, though, Soter has filled in many of those missing details. He has also shown a generous commitment to participating in the grand process of exploring the world through science. That is one of the happiest results of this whole exchange.

For more, watch the next episode of Cosmos and then join our Cosmos Rewind Google Hangout on Tuesday, March 18, at 8PM EDT. And follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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