Current Reading

Wednesday 15th April 2009

This is a topical note, and the composition of such a document is a very risky undertaking for someone as absent minded and easily distracted as I. I therefore start with a date. This note describes the state of my reading on the date shown immediately beneath the heading and records books I've read this year.

Hasok Chang Inventing Temperature Measurement and Scientific Progress

Chang combines a historical account of the construction of temperature scales, with an analysis of the implications for the Philosophy of Science.

I found the history fascinating, and the analysis acute.

Constructing a temperature scale seems to involve circularity, because it appears we can't construct one unless we already have one.

We need to choose some physical quantity to measure temperature. That was usually the volume of a fluid, though length of a silver rod, and pressure of a quantity of gas have both been used. However different physical quantities give different scales which agree only at the fixed points used for calibration.

Fixed points too presented serious difficulties. We need processes that always occur at the same temperature. How are they to be recognised unless there is already a temperature scale? Melting point and boiling point of water were favourites, but water neither melts at a fixed point, nor boils at a fixed point; the boiling is especially erratic. One of the hazards of the Chemistry laboratory was 'boiling with bumping' when a liquid is heated to above what we like to call its normal boiling point, and then a great deal evaporates in a minor explosion.Eventually physicists settled on the temperature of steam over boiling water at a pressure of 76 cm of mercury, but only after more than a century of debate.

Temperatures outside the range of a mercury thermometer presented immense difficulties. For a while many people denied that it was possible for mercury to freeze, using the Aristotelean argument that it is 'essentially' a liquid. When therefore it did freeze in the thermometers used in an expedition in Siberia, ridiculously low temeratures were recorded because people mistook the contraction that takes place when mercury freezes for a large contraction of what they assumed to be still liquid mercury.

When Wedgewood wanted to measure temperatures in his furnaces, temperatures that would melt most metals, he had to invent a special scale of his own based on the contraction of clay when heated. It took many years to link Wedgewood's scale to the Centigrade or Fahrenheit scales.

A fascinating sub plot is the experiment to show that heat is a radiation by using special mirrors to bring it to a focus. The odd thing about that experiment is that it can also be used to bring 'cold' to a focus. That observation was so unwelcome that the effect is usually ignored, though it was shown to be genuine by being repeated in the 1980's. (I think I ought to stick to one tense in that sentence, but can't decide which it should be)

Chang comcludes by proposing a study that he calls 'Complementary Science', concerned with the strange byways that conventional science has to neglect in order to concentrate on the research that appears most fruitful at the moment.

Henry David Thoreau Walden and Civil Disobedience

consisting of reprints of the two named works, followed by nineteen essays on Thoreau by a diverse collection of writers.

Thoreau, once described as a 'Yankee Diogenes', was an extreme individualist who found contemporary life over complicated, and thought people spent too long acquiring property that they could easily do without. He preferred to live a simple life which he could support by working only a few weeks each year, so that he had plenty of time to read, write and think. From 1845 to 1847 Thoreau lived in a hut in the woods on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord, in Massachusetts.

He built the hut himself, on land owned by his friend Emmerson, at a total cost of just over 28 dollars. Walden is his account of his life there, interlaced with a variety of thoughts that occurred to him during that time.

He supported himself partly by doing an occasional day's paid work, sometimes as a surveyor, and sometimes just as a labourer, and partly by growing assorted vegetables, mainly beans and potatoes. Some he ate, but most of the crop he sold. The prices intrigued me, and so did the measures he used. He recorded selling potatoes at 50 cents per bushel for the large ones, and half that price for the small ones. He kept a firkin for his own use.

That inspired me to check what a those measures are. A bushel appears to be eight gallons, and eleven bushels make a firkin. Thoreau's favourite measure of distance was the rod, which is 5.5 yards = a quarter of a chain.

When I read Thoreau I usually have beside me my old 1977 Science Diary that gives conversion factors for most of the imperial measures

At first I was irritated by the stridency of some of Thoreau's strictures on what he considered the over-sophistication of civilised life, but that irritation was diminished when I realised that he was just explaining his personal preferences. He did not want everyone to follow his example, indeed he thought the world would be a dull place if all behaved in the same way, and urged his readers not to be bound by custom and to work out each his own way of life. I say 'diminished'because I still think Thoreau underestimated the almost universal prefence for the complications of civilised life over the simplicity of the primitive. Civilisation evolved in response to the discontent of the uncivilised with the primitive simplicty of their lives

He seemed to regard life in the hut as a proof of principle rather than a settled way of life, because after two years he left it, considering that he had proved his point.

I had to force myself to read Walden all through without skipping. It is a strange mixture of acute observation, epigrams that might have been written to go into an anthology of telling quotations, and tortuously meandering metaphysical wool gathering.

Thoreau was a close observer of nature. Studying the shapes made in the sand by rivulettes of rain water trickling down the railway embankment, he described the fascinating complexity of what we should today call a fractal structure. Unfortunately his observations ammounted to little more than an clutter of unordered data, because he had no coherent theory that he could use to put them in order. That was not because he had no theory, but because he was in the thrall of a woolly Emmersonian proto-theory, that all Nature is One Wise and Wonderful

Civil Disoberdience, much shorter than Walden arose from Thoreau's brief imprisonment for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the institution of slavery, and the American war against Mexico. Civil Disobedience has been quite influential, apparently giving Gandhi the idea of passive resistance.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are taken up with essays by various commentator about Thoreau and his works. Some were admirably clear, including, surprisingly, Emerson's, but others I found very tedious, so that it was a struggle to finish.


During March and the first half of April I tried to learn more about Javascipt, with the aid of two books borrowed from the Library.

Books about computing become out of date very quickly, so library books are usually very much out of date, but If I bought up to date books, they would date very quickly, and I should have paid for them. I have managed to learn how to respond to mouse events, and how to use strings. I've also suceeded in using frames to dislay two web pages in diferent pats of the the same window. I think I've now got about as far as I can without sorting our forms, which still baffle me.

The books I've read have been quite unremarkable, so I don't give details.

Current Reading

Peter Worsley and others,Introducing Sciology.

This was written for use in Open University courses and was published in 1970, so it is by no means up to date. Its attractions were being cheap in a second hand book shop, and appearing to be written in tolerably lucid prose. I shall treat it as part of my study of the history of ideas, though I expect it will turn out to have some bearing on contemporary thought.

Peter Worsley Modern Sciology, Introductory Readings

is a companion book to the same writer's Introducing Sciology. It contains a collection of short readings from writers of interest to sociologists. Several of the readings come from books I've already read, so I may already know slightly more Sciology than I had realised.

I'm finding this material, and what follows applies to both books, heavy going. So far the material has consisted of the introducing of terminology and of abstract discussions of the methods of enquiry. I suspect that many sociologists have been anxious to represent themselves as scientists and, knowing little of theoretical science, have thought its most important feature to have been its extensive vocabulary of technical terms. They have accordingly made up a set of technical terms of their own. I look forward to discovering what they used those terms to say.

George Herbert Read, discussing 'The Self' appeared to belive that our individuality is not intrinsic to us, but is created by society. He provided no argument for that conclusion, neither logical anaysis, not any collection of relevant observations, but simply made oracular pronouncements.

Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckmann, writing about 'The Social Construction of Reality'thought they could disregard abstract theories on the ground that most people to do not discuss such theories. They overlooked the fact that people who do not debate theories, often stil take some theory or other for granted.

Peter Lipton Inference to the Best Explanation

Lipton argues that much, if not all, scientific reasoning is what the title says.

I bought the book after reading obituaries of Lipton, saying among other things that he was an outstandingly good lecturer, whose student audience once showed their appreciation by showering him with rose petals at the end of a course of Lectures.He was said to be particularly skilled at turning the incoherent half developed thoughts of his students into lucid prose that the individuals in quesion acknowledged as expressing their thoughts perfectly.

He died suddenly in 2007, aged 53, having for some years been professor of the History and Philosophy of science at Cambridge and a fellow of King's.

The book is proving less of a revelation than I had hoped. The pedestrian prose has none of the sparkle the obituaries led me to expect. In some ways its approach, though not its conclusions, reminds me of some of the work published in the 1920's and 1930's. Lipton seems to have thought that one should be able to find formal rules for identifying an explanation. That is not possible, because no such rules can be established antecedently to scientific enquiry, since the questions of what methods of investigatiion are fruitful, and what sorts of clues are worth following up, are themselves things we can only learn by experience.

Lipton might have understood that better had he paid more attention to C.S. Peirce, who was mentioned only once in a bare reference that was not followed by any discussion of the material refered to.

Lipton thought that an explanation should be in terms of cause and effect. Cause atracted him because he thought explanation is typically partial. We don't usually just explain why something happened, we explain why one ting happened rather than another. In other words, explanations are usually contrastive.

Cause entered the philosophical vocabulary through Aristotle's notion of arkai. Aristotle defined cause as an explanation of change, distinguishing four sorts of explanation, material, formal efficient and final causes. (see Chapter 2 of my Philosophy notes) The modern notion of cause is Aristotle's formal cause.

Lipton conceded that the notion of cause is itself problematic, though he didn't seem to apreciate how problematic. I suspect he may never have read Bertrand Russell's 1912 paper On the Notion of Cause in which Russell argues cogently that 'cause' has no place in science - or at least no place in Physics. Lipton thought the difficulties we have with 'cause' do not prevent our using it analyse 'explanation'. What he overlooked was the nature of the difficulties with 'cause' The central difficlty is distinguishing a relation of cause and effect from an accidental relation of regular succession. What makes a regular succession into a relation of cause and effect is the ability to provide an explanation of the effect. Thus cause has to be elucidated in terms of explanation, making the use of cause to analyse explanation viciously circular.

Lipton's examples of explanations were relatively few, and usually involved explanations of particular events, such as someone deciding to study at one University rather than another. They had no clear relevance to scientific thought.

I think it is a mistake to look for one logical structure that must be present in every explanation. To explain some event is to incorporate it into some sort of story that makes it appear to fit harmoniously into our system of knowledge. That usually makes what we are explaining seem less surprising than it otherwise would.

Although that is very vague, I think it is about all we can usefully say about explanation in general, because there are many ways of explaining, so there is no simple and precise definition covering them all.

In places Lipton seems to confuse the problem of testing a theory and justifying belief in it, with the very different matter of developing the theory in the first place. His work lacks the subtlety and analytical acuteness I expect from someone who has spent much of his life among academic philosophers. The History and Philosophy of Science can easily become a cul de sac where people plod on largely unaffected by the debates that engage the wider Philosophical community.

Links to accounts of my reading in previous years

may be found in the Box Room (see the link above)