Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

Who was Isaac Newton? In his own age, Newton was a god of reason who created a perfect and perfectly rational universe. To a later and more romantic age, he became a monster, a bizarre unsociable creature who stripped the world of its rich mystery. More recently he has been outed as a closeted mystic who delved deeply into religious prophecy and alchemy. As John Maynard Keynes famously pronounced, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Which Newton do you see? James Gleick does a fine job in this book of telling the story not only of the man, but of how he was perceived. After all, where exactly are the lines that separate magic, religion, and science? They are foggy enough even now, and in the 17th century they were indiscernible. Newton, in pursuing occult matters, wasn’t engaged in a childish sideshow. He was doing the same thing that led him to his law of universal gravitation. He could not know that his investigations into the biblical prophecies of Daniel would not lead him to results as fundamental as his physics. He was simply doing what he did better than anyone before or since: observing, theorizing, experimenting, and systematizing. In so doing he sharpened the lines between what we now think of as the clear and separate domains of science, magic, and religion, though this was certainly not his intent. It’s just that his science succeeded where his theology did not. But who can blame him for thinking that his vision could penetrate any topic? Gleick’s book is very good, a sympathetic and rounded portrait of a strange and extraordinary man.

Dark matter STILL missing

Years after most of the universe’s mass went missing, it seems we still can’t figure out where it went. Scientists have put a WIMP detector in a Minnesota mine hoping to find the elusive quarry, but to no avail. See the BBC News story here: BBC NEWS | Dark matter detector limbers up.

A WIMP is an (as yet undemonstrated) weakly interacting massive particle, and the theory says that the missing mass may be packed in the back pockets of these heavy but barely detectable particles. It reminds me of 19th century efforts to keep the old ether theory of light propagation alive, despite all evidence to the contrary. But I’m no physicist. For some reason, I’m charmed by the fact that fully 70% of the universe is locked away somewhere and we have absolutely no idea where it is. It’s both humbling and exciting to see such gaping holes in our model of the universe.

Anyway, if you happen across the missing mass, please notify the authorities. You may want to print up a few our Americans for a Closed Universe flyers for distribution around town. Or, as Derwood Tuthill says, “Save the Universe: it’s the environmental issue of all time.”

Plasmatron reformer

This just in from the Science Fiction Technology Naming department… scientists at MIT are building a pollution mitigation device for diesel engines called a (wait for it) plasmatron fuel reformer. It works like this: some of the diesel fuel passes through the reformer, which forms a hydrogen rich gas, which is then combined with the diesel exhaust to lower the noxious nitrous oxide emissions. But that’s not the important thing. What really matters is, who came up with that fabulous name? I guarantee you the plasmatron reformer was named by someone with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf crammed with paperback science fiction (“If you can just shut down the tractor beam, I should be able to knock the plasmatron fuel reformer offline.”). I hope this technology cuts pollution levels and all, but these guys deserve an award for the name alone.

Industrial biotech

The Economist has a good article on biotech this week. The moral of the story is that there’s a lot more to biotech than the pharmaceuticals business. Industrial solvents, food products, textiles, energy production, even the feedstocks to the plastics industry can be produced from living organisms that have been appropriately wired. Early indications are very promising. As the money pours in and the public catches on, we’ll soon find out if people are as opposed to genetically modified laundry starch as they are to genetically modified corn flakes.

I was intrigued by the description of a French company mentioned late in the article: Metabolic Explorer. Assuming it works as advertised, they have a terrific business model: “In silico lead strain generation for the development of new bioprocesses to replace existing chemical syntheses.” Check out their Products and Service page.