Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Example of How Science Works From George W. Corner

I got this story first from Garett Hardin's 2nd ed biology textbook. In it George W. Corner tells about his and W. M. Allen's research on progesterone in rabbits to illustrate how science works. Note how the scientists treat their observations, their techniques, how they critique themselves and each other but how they don't give up.

A failure and what it taught.

Willard Allen and I had a
queer experience with our first extracts, from which we learned
something important, so that the story is not only amusing
but useful. The beginning of this tale is that when we started
we followed (as I said before) a hint from the work of Ed-
mund Herrmann, who had obviously produced progestational
proliferation in a few of his experiments without knowing it.
He had used very young rabbits, roughly 8 weeks old. They
react more readily than adults to the estrogen which was the
chief ingredient of his extracts. Since we wanted to follow his
methods closely at first, we used infant rabbits too, and with
them our first successes were obtained. In the spring of 1929
we were all ready to report the first steps in print. The paper
was being written, when it occurred to me that our directions
for extracting the hormone ought to be tried out by a none-
too-good chemist, just to make sure they were foolproof. We
did not want others to think our work could not be repeated,
just because our directions were not clear. It was agreed that
I was a bad enough chemist for the test : if I could make the
extract all by myself, then anybody could. So Allen went on
his vacation and I went back to our extractors and vacuum
stills. In a week I had a batch ready; to my horror it was
ineffectual. I made another batch; it, too, was worthless. I

suppressed the paper and telegraphed for Allen. We decided
that I needed a vacation and that we would look for the
trouble in the fall. In September I made another batch with
Allen watching every step, but not touching the apparatus.
It was no good. What could be wrong.'' Since my laboratory
was sunnier than his, perhaps my hormone was being spoiled
by sunlight. I had a room blacked out and made a batch in
the dark. That failed. Then we remembered that Allen, being
a better chemist than I, usually got his extracts freer of su-
perfluous grease and therefore had to mix them with corn oil
(Mazola) so that he could inject them. Mine were greasy
enough to inject without added oil. Perhaps the corn oil pro-
tected his hormones somehow while mine spoiled. We checked
that idea — another two weeks gone — and that was not the
answer. Then in desperation we made a batch together, side
by side and almost hand in hand, each watching the other. We
divided it into two lots and tested it separately — Allen's
worked ; mine did not ! Eureka, my trouble was in the testing,
not in the cookery.

The explanation will seem so silly that I almost hesitate
to admit what it was. The fact is that rabbits do not respond
well to progesterone until they are about 8 weeks old and
weigh about 800 grams. We did not know this, and our rab-
bits ranged from 600 to 1,200 grams. When we went to the
cages to inject them, Willard Allen's idea of what constitutes
a nice rabbit led him to choose the larger ones, while I must
have had a subconscious preference for the infants. My ex-
tracts had been as good as his all the while, but my rabbits
were insensitive. It is staggering to think how often the success
or failure of research may hang upon such an unimaginable



by George W. Corner
pg 118 to 119

the whole book looks rather fun.

read the whole book online here:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It Snowed Last Night. Snow! What Crazy Stuff That Is!

Why does this aspect of the universe amaze me so much? That water comes in three funky phases and how they intertransform is interesting. That Earth is a dynamic place. The sun is warmer than outerspace and warmer than Earth so light flows from the sun to earth and warms the seas and the water in the seas is not just a continuous featureless goopy liquid it's frenetic dance of things called molecules. anyway these 'things' are actually rather clever, they can respond to energy and their neighbors. give 'em energy and they can dance away from their neighbors, let 'em lose energy at night and they bump into their neighbors and stick. water molecules are actually quite sophisticated little machines and can do some simple computations and can make interesting shapes.

anyway sunlight is enough energy to launch a water molecule if it absorbs some light, then emits some light back, it will spring, and if it bounces against a neigbor fast enough it will be going fast enough to launch itself into space. until it bounces into another air molecule also launching into space and you get a chaotic pinball game of molecules bouncing into each other that we call our atmosphere. something we can breath.

of course by the time they get pretty high, it gets colder up there and colder means they start loosing energy to the cold outerspace and if they start crashing into each other they start holding on. if enough of them do this it's a water droplet. water droplets though even are complex, they have distinct outsides and insides. they float around up there, having all those faster molecules bouncing into them imparting motion to them in all different directions. eventually though they grow big enough and gravity pulls 'em down. that's called rain. and of course that does all the building of streams and ponds and washing away of soil, Grand Canyons etc...

but what if they get higher and get REALLY cold? then they really get a chance to slow down and 'feel' each other out. even in water droplets they are actually bouncing around each other momentarily holding on and letting go. ( what's the dividing line microscopically between being water and being ice? not sure really. i think it's a matter of what percentage of them are holding on at any given time! there's a branch of mathematics called zero one laws on random graphs that gives some results on sudden bifurcations in behavior of masses of interacting thingies given the slow increase in percentage of connections...) so it turns out that at a certain temperature, water freezes. but not microscopically! at the surface of the growing crystal there is no such thing as temperature! and many curious things can happen, many dynamic things can happen. and they do! and the water molecules dance delicately back and forth together back into the air and sculpt themselves into... snowflakes! so curious that each one is a unique sculpture.

it is a tribute to the dynamic sensitive nature of these molecule thingies that ice does not ONLY come down in tiny featureless blobs, but often comes down as snow. and funny stuff snow is. it's feathery but eventually it does succumb to gravity's pull and eventually falls and piles up on Earth. because it is so feathery it reflects white, and because snowflakes are feathery they catch on each other higgledy piggledy and snow is fluffy. it's also a good insulator, catching air pockets...

it is a tribute to the 'intelligence' of these little molecules that at different temperatures and climatic conditions they can make moisture in the air, that's pleasant, or they can condense and make a dynamic fluid we can swim in! and they can tell they are at the edge of their fluid and they hold on REALLY tight there and little bugs can walk around on that! if they slowly freeze at the top of the pond then you can go iceskating on it! because the pressure of your iceskate blades makes it melt again momentarily and the water makes a good lubricant! if the moisture in the air freezes more delicately it comes down as snow and kids can jump into it and roll down the hills in it, it's soft enough to break their fall due to a complicated interaction between millions of quickly snapping snowflake arms... the simplest physical system, only water cooling - already makes complex structures with fascinating functionality.

snow molecules are things? if the things can respond to each other and make connections and separate etc... do you call 'em things? if they can sense whether they are at the edge or the middle of a pile of themselves because of their connections do we call them things or machines or what's the dividing line between a thing and an animate being. forget about reproduction most animate beings right now ain't reproducing. I want to explore the fundamental nature of animate beings, break the concept down into its components. What are the multiple properties that make beings animate? I think the properties are well distributed into all the parts, and then built up from interactions between parts, between parts that are capable of interacting.

see, many people are fond of pointing out that a pile of boeing 747 parts in a heap would never come together to make an aeroplane. they are "dead inert matter". And by anology a pile of chemicals could never spontaneously come together and become a living being. But this is a faulty analogy due to our perception of size scale and time. of course as time goes on they WILL interact (NOT inert at all) with the rain and the oxygen and begin to rust. sand will blow against them and the rust will eventuall break off, they will eventually crumble and the rust will eventually wash away into the soil where it will dissolve into individual ions and the ions at the level of ions are certainly NOT inert dead parts, but active sensitive little critters that will get into all sorts of dynamic combinations and can even catalyze other dynamic combinations, similar to the ones that power US.

But at our scale of time and space, Boeing parts do not interact. But ont he scale of molecules, molecules CERTAINLY are capable of interacting, getting cought up in networks of interactions that are creative... I want to show that the ground of being of the universe, is not lumpish, inert, like clay, but dynamic, responsive, containing the 'microscopic components' so to speak, of creativity.