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On the Epicurean Conception of Gravity, and Newton

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/10/2020 - 10:52pm in

[T]here is a second aspect of Newton’s thought that is relevant: there are numerous instances in which both Newton and his followers reject action at a distance in strong terms. Newton’s apparent rejection of distant action in the correspondence with Bentley has been subject to considerable debate, but Newton makes similar points elsewhere, even in unpublished works that cannot be read as involving a hedging of his bets. For instance, in the unpublished corollaries to propositions 4 through 9 of Book III to the Principia, written in the early 1690s, when Newton thought a second edition of his text might appear, he writes:

For two planets separated from each other by a long empty [vacui] distance do not attract each other by any force of gravity or act on each other in any way except by the mediation of some active principle [movente principio] interceding between them by which the force is transmitted from one to the other.[1]

Unlike the Bentley correspondence, this is a direct expression of Newton’s own understanding of gravity, one that is entirely independent of the questions about Newton’s views of the essence of matter and his attempts to distance himself (perhaps) from what were then called “Epicurean” conceptions of atoms in the void (cf. Henry, 2011). There cannot be a clearer statement of his views: two planets do not act on each other in any way except through some mediating item.--Andrew Janiak (2013) "Three concepts of causation in Newton." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44.3 (2013): 403

As regular readers may recall, I am one of Janiak's targets in context.* And I have to admit that when I first read Janiak's paper I thought his evidence was so strong that I had to concede that after the publication of the Principia, Newton did not return to the position that I attributed to him (here; here) based on my reading of the posthumously published Treatise of the System of the World, an early version of what became book III of the Principia.

But before I was going to throw in the towel, I wanted to check out the wider context of the passage quoted by Janiak. It reads as follows:

The Epicureans making a distinction of the whole of nature into body and void, denied the existence of God, but very absurdly. For two planets separated from each other by a great expanse of void do not mutually attract each other by any force of gravity or act on each other in any way except by the mediation of some active principle that stands between them by means of which force is propagated from one to the other. [According to the opinion of the ancients, this medium was not corporeal since they held that all bodies by their very natures were heavy and that atoms themselves fall through empty space toward the earth by the eternal force of their nature without being pushed by other bodies.] Therefore the ancients who grasped the mystical philosophy as Thales and the Stoics more correctly taught that a certain infinite spirit pervades all space, and contains and vivifies the entire world; and this supreme spirit was their numen; according to the poet cited by the Apostle: In him we live and move and have our being. Hence the omnipresent God is recognized, and by the Jews is called 'place'. To the mystical philosophers, however, Pan was that supreme numen...By this symbol, the philosophers taught that matter is moved in that infinite spirit and by it is driven, not at random, but harmonically, or according to the harmonic proportions as I have just explained.[2]

As McGuire notes (1968: 169), the manuscript probably dates from the mid-1690s when Newton became eager to situate his own work in light of ancient epicureanism. (I have tried to explain why this would be so here.) Here the mediating active principle just is the Stoic world soul, which appears to be an electric spirit of some sort. So, at first glance the wider context seems to support Janiak’s position.

And before I address the position, I have to note a complication. A very natural reading of the General Scholium, which was drafted a decade or two later, of the Principia is that he denies that God is a world soul (Newton 1999: 940; recall last week's discussion.) Rudolf De Smet & Karin Verelst have convincingly argued that here (and in a few other places of the General Scholium) Newton is echoing Lipsius's attack, inspired by Philo, on the old stoic notion  of anima mundi. So, we are by no means required to accept this manuscript as authoritative expression of Newton’s all-things-considered views. But because I have expressed some doubts that Newton really does reject the world soul altogether, this move is not entirely open to me.

However, and more controversially, I now think Janiak was wrong to think that the manuscript offers "a direct expression of Newton’s own understanding of gravity, one that is entirely independent of the questions about Newton’s views of the essence of matter and his attempts to distance himself (perhaps) from what were then called “Epicurean” conceptions of atoms in the void." In fact, now I deny that we are supposed to treat the key sentence – “For two planets separated from each other by a great expanse of void do not mutually attract each other by any force of gravity” – as really expressing Newton’s own position. For, he could be expressing the Epicurean position here. In fact, I think it is a natural reading of Epicurus' physics as expressed in the "Letter to Herodotus" reproduced in Book X of Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers.  

Epicurean gravity is directed down to a privileged place (Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus, section 61). And this is so in infinite worlds (section 45). In a void atoms, which constitute bodies, do not interfere with each other unless they accidently deflect each other from their path (Epicurus, Letter to Herodutus, section 44). So, in Epicurean cosmology, the atoms on a planet move down, barring deflection and the swerve, and planets do not attract each other. So, a natural way to read the Epicureans is that two planets separated from each other by a great expanse of void do not “mutually attract each other by any force of gravity.” The atoms that constitute such planets have a tendency to press toward the center of each planet. But there is no reason to think they attract each other across the void. 

So, if one is antecedently convinced that Newton rejects the possibility of action at a distance, then, indeed taken in isolation --- "for two planets separated from each other by a great expanse of void do not mutually attract each other by any force of gravity or act on each other in any way except by the mediation of some active principle that stands between them by means of which force is propagated from one to the other" -- seems like a smoking gun. But the sentence before it and the sentence after it discuss ancient theories. In fact, the following sentence ("bodies by their very natures were heavy and that atoms themselves fall through empty space toward the earth by the eternal force of their nature without being pushed by other bodies") just conveys the Epicurean position. 

So, a natural reading of the first three sentences of the manuscript is as a description of a debate between Epicurean atheists and ancient (mystical-theist) critics. And I am willing to believe that Newton agreed with the critics that the Epicurean position was absurd. Not just because the Epicureans could be taken to deny God's existence, but also because Newton himself has established that Jupiter and Saturn did influence each other (Principia, Book III, Proposition 18, Theorem 18; Newton 1999: 818)



[1] In the accompanying note Janiak cites it as follows: “unpublished manuscript, University Library Cambridge, Add. MS 3965.6, f.269; quoted in Casini (1984, 38)”

[2] I have consulted Hylarie Kochiras ""Force, matter, and metaphysics in Newton's natural philosophy," 2008: 109 and McGuire (1968: 169).

Have Astronomers Found Traces of Life on Venus?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 9:15pm in

The big story on Tuesday was that astronomers had discovered traces of a gas, phosphine, in the atmosphere of Venus. The gas is produced by living organisms, and so it’s discovery naturally leads to the possibility that the second planet from the Sun may be the abode of life.

The I’s edition for 15th September 2020 reported the discovery in an article by David Woods entitled, ‘Forget Mars, a startling discovery may mean there’s life on Venus’. This ran

Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus: a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500o C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50Km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.

On Earth phosphine – a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms – is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.

A group of British, American and Japanese scientists – led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified Venus’s phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The presence of the gas was confirmed at an astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Professor Greaves said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock.” Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer, who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science.”

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a particular part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30oC, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – a major issue for the survival of microbes.

Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate the findings.

This reminds me somewhat of the excitement in the 1990s when scientists announced that they may have discovered microfossils of Martian bacteria in a meteorite from the Red Planet found in Antarctica. The above article was accompanied by another piece by Woods, ‘Nothing found since claims awed Clinton’, which described how former president Clinton had made an official announcement about the possibility of life on Mars when the putative microfossils were found. The article states that confirmation that these are indeed fossils is lacking. It also notes that 4,000 exoplanets have also now been found, and that some of them may have life, but this has also not been confirmed. Astronomers have also been searching the skies for radio messages from alien civilisations, but these haven’t been found either.

Dr Colin Pillinger, the head of the ill-fated Beagle Project, a British probe to the Red Planet, also argued that there was life there as traces of methane had been found. This looked like it had been produced by biological processes. In a talk he gave at the Cheltenham Festival of Science one year, he said that if a Martian farted, they’d find it.

A few years ago I also submitted a piece to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that there might be life in Venus’ clouds. It was based on the presence of organic chemicals there, rather similar, I felt, to those on Saturn’s moon, Titan, which at one time was also considered a possible home of alien life. I got a letter stating that the Journal was going to run it, but in the end they didn’t. I think it may have been because another, professional astronomer published an article about it just prior to the proposed publication of my piece. I think I threw out the Journal’s letter years ago while clearing out the house, and so I don’t have any proof of my claim. Which is obviously disappointing, and you’ll have to take what I say on trust.

The possibility that there’s life on Venus is interesting, and undoubtedly important in its implications for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos if true. But I think that, like the Martian microfossils, there isn’t going to be any confirmation for a very long time.

History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.

Darren Grimes: Respectable Journalist or Shape-Changing Alien Invader?

The Sunday before last, August 23rd 2020, Zelo Street put up a piece reporting the outrage when Sunday Morning Live decided to hold a debate about education. Unfortunately, one of the so-called ‘experts’ they invited on was professional Guido Fawkes windbag was Darren Grimes. A man, who can fairly be said to be one of the most ignorant people in journalism, and that’s against stiff competition like Sarah Vine, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Harry Cole, political editor of the Scum. Way back in the 1930s when the great Surrealist painter Salvador Dali fled to America to escape the Spanish Civil War, he declared that his mission was to cretinise the public. Well, Dali passed away in the late 70s, but he left his great mission to the Tory party. Back in the 1980s Private Eye reviewed one book by the new Tory thinkers that were coming through. I think it was by the late Roger Scruton, but I’m not sure. The book stated that Conservatism, based as it is on tradition, is silent and incoherent until forced into action. This was a clear statement of the anti-intellectualism that’s at the heart of Tory politics. It forced the Eye to ponder whether there was an optimum level of cretinisation. Had Prince Philip reached it? And one those seeming to carry on this mission to misinform the public spreading lies and sheer ignorance is Darren Grimes.

How Grimes gets invited onto the Beeb as any kind of authority is something of a mystery. He’s working class, and has something of a chip on his shoulder about his origins, feeling that he is looked down upon because of this and the fact that he has a northern accent. But this is what happens when you support a party run by elite public school types on behalf of elite public school types. They have elocution lesson at school deliberately to lose any regional accent they have. And this automatic connection between received pronunciation and leadership is explicitly stated by the British military. One spokesman for the British army, quoted in an article back in the 1980s stated very clearly that if you want to be a British officer, you should lose your regional accent otherwise you wouldn’t be respected by the troops. I’ve met a lot of squaddies, and in general they don’t respect the officers because of the bullying, sneering attitude so many of them have towards their men and women, along with stories of stupid orders that have led to disaster given by commanders against the advice of their NCOs.

Grimes also feels he’s despised because he didn’t complete his degree. He’s a failed fashion student. Okay, academic intelligence doesn’t automatically equate to being generally well-informed and intelligent. It’s just one form of it. When I was at school we were told that only 5 per cent of the British population went to university. That changed rapidly with the expansion of higher education in the 1990s with the creation of the new universities out of the older colleges and polytechnics. Then came Blair and New Labour, who wanted 50 per cent of the population to attend university. The result is that something like 46 per cent of the school leavers now go on to university. But this also means that there are plenty of older people, who are naturally very intelligent, but didn’t get a chance to go when they were children. Their intelligence shouldn’t be underestimated. But Darren Grimes isn’t one of them either.

In one of his pieces, he praised the Tories for breaking out of the old New Labour Oxbridge elite. It’s another falsehood, and the truth is exactly the opposite of what he said. New Labour senior figures came from a range of different universities. Blair attended Aberdeen, Gordon Brown Edinburgh. Another senior cabinet minister went to Newcastle Upon Tyne, I believe. It is the Tory administrations of Dave Cameron, Tweezer and now Boris Johnson that’s stuffed full of the Oxbridge elite. And then there’s that little incident of Grimes’ interview with David Starkey, in which he let the Tudor historian get away with all manner of racist nonsense. Including the really offensive statement that slavery couldn’t be a holocaust, because there are ‘too bloody many of them’ now around. Grimes’ appearance on Sunday Morning Live resulted in a number of peeps going on Twitter to ask the obvious question: how did someone as stupid and ignorant as Grimes get invited onto the Beeb. Zelo Street quotes a number of them, beginning with Mic Wright, who said  “I studied Education at Cambridge University (2:1). I am a school governor. I have written about education issues for 15 years. I am the first in my family to attend university. I have lots of broadcast experience. And now on [SML] … Darren Grimes, an expert in nothing”. Rosa P asked

“What the hell does [Darren Grimes] actually know about anything? Surely you should have some expertise in any area to give an opinion on the BBC. Grimes, you had little to offer to the discussion other than telling us you did an apprenticeship in media studies … Made the mistake of putting [SML] on. Their expert panel discussing education includes Darren Grimes, whose sole qualification is that he once attended a school. I try to defend the BBC but they do themselves no favours with this nonsense”.

‘Pad’ pointed out the hypocrisy of Grimes himself for appearing on the Beeb when he wants to defund it. “Is Brexit gobshite Darren Grimes, whose Twitter header is a photo of him appearing on the BBC and who was, once again, on the BBC this morning talking utter bollocks, still a part of the ‘grassroots’ campaign to [Defund the BBC]?”

John Traynor’s answer to this conundrum was succinct: “BBC has arsehole Darren Grimes on because it doesn’t understand balance in broadcasting”.

Zelo Street concluded his article with this:

‘What, one has to ask, is the point of inviting pundits with some expertise, who are prepared to research their subject, just to find they have to debate with Darren Grimes, whose USP is to whine about people calling him an idiot. Because he is one.

Having an opinion is not the same as knowledge. Know the difference, BBC people.’



The mention of Grimes reminded of the very brief description of an evil alien race in Ed McNab’s The Alien Spotter’s Handbook or How to Save the Earth. This was a children’s humorous book published in 1982, which mixed real astronomy with a less than reverent treatment of astrology, as well as Fortean phenomena like frog falls and the Devil’s hoof prints in Devon, the Mary Celeste and so on, with simple stage magic tricks and instructions how to make your own simple telescope and periscope around the fictional narrative that there is an alien plot to take over the world. This was discovered by the fictional Dr. Qwax. Evidence for this malign plot came when experts examined an alien probe that landed in Peterborough. Ostensibly friendly, further investigation revealed that it was far more sinister, with a secret compartment containing computer games like ‘Kill the Human’. It’s written as a guide to uncovering these covert alien invaders, including those who have taken over members of your family, like your dad or granny. There are plenty of the kind of daft jokes children of all ages love, and 2000 AD and the mighty Tharg also get a mention. One of the jokes is a spoof list of pop songs secretly written by aliens. And one of them is The Grymes They Are a-Changin’ by the Metamorphs. This has a footnote helpfully explaining that they are ‘Shape-Changers from a very dense planet. Grymes specilise in Heavy Metal Rock musicians.’

Gyrmes/Grimes – this must be it then. Grimes is really a Gryme, a shape-changing alien from a very dense planet, who has disguised himself as a human as part of this insidious alien plot. It has to be! It can’t be because he actually has any real journalistic talent.

On Newton's Third Rule of Reasoning and Rational Theology (or on Brading on Newton's Philosophy of time), pt I

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/08/2020 - 8:50pm in



I agree [with Schliesser] that [I] Newtonian absolute time (p.18) should not be conflated with Newtonian true time. I agree that, for [II] the purposes of the Principia, Newton does not need his time parameter to extend from infinity to infinity. I agree that [III] the spatial reach of Newton’s time parameter in the Principia is an empirical matter. However, I do not think that, [IV] for Newton,“absolute” and “true” mark Schliesser’s distinction between a spatially limited empirical time parameter and a theologically motivated, infinitely extended “time.”
Initial doubts about Schliesser’s interpretation arise when we notice that in the scholium Newton does not make the positive assertion that absolute, true, or mathematical time are eternal in duration, nor does he assert that space is infinite, and nor does he assert that each moment of time extends from infinity to infinity. We are familiar with these claims from other places in Newton’s writings, but in this part of the text, where Newton is setting out what is needed for the project of the Principia, no such positive claims are made.
Moreover, the distinction that Schliesser draws is not one that we find doing work for Newton in his argument in the Principia, such that he has reason to mark it by means of a terminological distinction. As evidence for this, consider that Newton has just as good reasons to think that his absolute time extends to the physics of the distant stars and to the planetary systems around distant stars (if any such exist) as he does to think that his laws of motion and law of universal gravitation apply to such bodies, and he does not make the solar system the boundary of applicability for these latter.
Newton worried about how we extend our knowledge to bodies beyond the reach of our experiments, and this worry is explicitly addressed in his Rule 3 of Reasoning, added to Book 3 in the second edition of the Principia (Newton 1999, 795):

Those qualities of bodies that cannot be intended and remitted and that belong to all bodies on which experiments can be made should be taken as qualities of all bodies universally.

This rule plays a crucial role in enabling Newton to extend results from terrestrial experiments to the celestial bodies of the solar system. In applying Rule 3 to bodies beyond the solar system, we would certainly be wise to be tentative given the flimsiness (even non-existence) of our empirical evidence, but there is nothing in Newton’s writings to indicate a sharp cutoff at the outer edges of the solar system such that we should not consider distant stars to be bodies. On the contrary, the possibility of other worlds around other Suns, governed by the same laws, is very much part of Newton’s thinking. For example, there is a manuscript in which Newton (p.19) asserts that the fixed stars are bodies just like our Sun: they are formed into spheres by their own gravity, and since they are bodies, they are, by definition, subject to the laws of motion. It seems to me that the distinction Schliesser draws is not important for Newton’s purposes.
Finally, the contexts in which Newton extends moments of time to spatial infinity are generally also those in which he is talking about God’s presence in the world, rather than those in which he is concerned with methods of reasoning from the phenomena.
In my opinion, we have good reason to suspect that Newton was careful not to overreach empirically when he was setting out his accounts of time and space in the scholium (i.e., at the outset of the empirical project of the Principia). There is therefore reason to doubt that the inclusion of “true time” is an “unnecessary addition” (Schliesser 2013, 91). In the following section I propose an alternative interpretation of the terminology, in which each of his three distinctions—absolute versus relative, true versus apparent, and mathematical versus common—are relevant and important for the project of the Principia.--Katherine Brading (2017) "Time for Empiricist Metaphysics" in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science: New Essays edited by Matthew Slater and Zanja Yudell [emphases added for ease of discussion.]

While it's pretty baffling to be told by a referee#2 to cite [fill in your name + year], there is, in academic life, no stranger feeling than to publish a scholarly paper about which one thinks firmly, 'this has to be wrong' and one simultaneously believes in exhilarated fashion, 'I am on to something really important.' So far I have only thought that once, when my Newton's Philosophy of Time (2013) appeared in print (thank you Adrian and Heather for seeing it through!)

Now, between (ca) 2007 and 2015, I was immersed in a collegial community of Newton scholars, which -- thanks to email and a steady stream of workshops -- shared papers and ideas regularly  (Brading's letters were often at the root of my papers); and many of the best ideas in my Newton's Philosophy of Time paper originated with or had been commented on by them. And, in fact, the (2013) paper's core starting point, that we ought not assume that absolute and true time are identical, originates in reflecting on a paper by Nick Huggett, who had claimed that absolute and true motion should not be treated as the same concept in the famous scholium to the definitions of the Principia.

Somewhat strangely, while there is huge sophisticated literature on Newton's philosophy of space, there are only a few papers on Newton's philosophy of time. There is, however, a general presumption that Newton's treats them in more or less identical or at least symmetrical fashion as was more common in early modern world (Geoff Gorham has explored this). And Newton invites the idea when he writes, in the scholium to the definitions, 'Just as the order of the parts of time is unchangeable, so, too, is the order of the parts of space.'

In the scholium to the definitions, Newton tells us that space and time are both abstract "quantities" and that these can be distinguished "into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common."

But alerted by Huggett's paper, I had noticed something quirky. Compare the following two sentences (they are both the first sentence of the respective paragraphs in which these quantities are explained):

[A]: Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly and by another name is called duration.

[B] Absolute space, of its own nature without reference to anything external, always remains homogeneous and immovable.

'True, and mathematical' are absent in [B]! Now look at what Newton says about the relevant contrast (in the next sentence of each paragraph):

[A*] Relative, apparent, and common time is any sensible and external measure a (precise or imprecise) of duration by means of motion; such a measure—for example, an hour, a day, a month, a year—is commonly used instead of true time.

[B*] Relative space is any movable measure or dimension of this absolute space; such a measure or dimension is determined by our senses from the situation of the space with respect to bodies and is popularly used for immovable space, as in the case of space under the earth or in the air or in the heavens, where the dimension is determined from the situation of the space with respect to the earth.

Again, "apparent, and common" are absent in [B*].+ In addition, there is a further asymmetry in the measures.  When the (regular) motion of bodies are used (qua measure of time), something physical is deployed to track an abstract quantity (viz. absolute time, etc.) But when the situation of one body relative to another body is used,  it looks like the very abstraction you are trying to track is already in the measure. (Of course, this is also true of motion, qua measure, which presupposes the very abstract regularity you are trying to track.) But to put the point informally, Newton is proposing to treat a part of space as the measure of space. He treats something that is prima facie not time as the measure of time.+ 

This is not the place to recount what I did with these initial observations. You can infer some of what I claimed in my paper from some of Brading excellent criticisms quoted above. As I said above, I had strong feeling that something had gone wrong in my argument. And, as it happens, in the piece I partially quoted above, Brading has articulated the version of Newton's position that I would have expected to articulate myself (except that she does so much better than I could imagine myself doing) before I had started writing my own paper. And when I first heard her paper, and than read it when it appeared, I was both pleased she agreed with me on [I-III] and convinced she is right about the remaining differences between us, that is [IV]. 

But as she guessed in a recent note to me, I don't really believe in the inner recess of my heart that I am wrong about [IV]. And so here I want to begin spelling out why. And, rather than going to the heart of the matter, I start by sorting out some preliminary disagreements. Today I tackle two such disagreements. I fully agree with Brading that rule 3 "plays a crucial role in enabling Newton to extend results from terrestrial experiments to the celestial bodies of the solar system." And that, while there are epistemic risks, the rule also encourages to project "to bodies beyond the solar system." But notice that in the quote from Rule 3, Newton mentions bodies, or as David Miller has emphasized, systems or, as I (influenced by Chris Smeenk) would say, interactions among bodies in rule 3. He does not mention space or time in the rule. 

And, in fact, in the Opticks, Newton had queried “it may be also allowed that God is able to create particles of matter of several sizes and figures, and in several proportions to space, and perhaps of different densities and forces, and thereby to vary the laws of nature, and make worlds of several sorts in several parts of the universe.” (Query 31; emphases added.) This passage is interesting for what Newton thinks about the nature of the laws of nature (see my (2017) piece with Zvi Biener, which engages with Brading's influential views on laws).  But here I use it to note an important contrast: for Newton it is quite conceivable that bodies and the laws they obey could be different whereas he does not think space could be different. And, in fact, for Newton it is conceivable, as a speculative matter, that in solar systems (what he calls "worlds") far from ours bodies and their laws are different (such that the galaxy is populated (by "worlds of several sorts in several parts of the universe"). Such speculations are not to be used in active research (which is, in fact, governed by rule 3).

As an aside, because solar systems are so far apart, and separated by empty space, there is negligible interaction among them. (According to the general scholium, this is a providential thing because it prevents the solar systems from collapsing onto each other.) I say 'negligible' because light does reach us from afar. And there is no reason to think it obeys different laws. 

But crucially, space cannot be created differently by God. And that is, as Newton explains in the general scholium,“by existing always and every where, [God] constitutes Duration and Space . . . ’Tis allowed by all that the supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and every where.” So, space, and time, are unchanging because they are constituted by God. In effect, they are privileged attributes of God. So, while time is not mentioned in the passage quoted from Query 31, it seems natural to read Newton as claiming that fundamentally time is necessarily unchangeable, while bodies could be different. 

Okay, this puts me in position, to mark a second (less important) misconception (for which my terminology may be to blame). Brading appears to think that when I use 'rational theology' I mean unempirical. Now, it is true that I argue that unlike absolute time, true time is of no use in Newton's dynamics or the physics proper of the Principia. But by this I do not mean that true time is thereby unempirical. For, Newton is quite explicit in the general scholium that theology is, in part, an empirical enterprise: "to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of "natural" philosophy.""

But rather by 'rational theology' I meant (by way of analogue to 'rational mechanics') that there are features of Newton's theology that, while attentive to the phenomena, rely on conceptual moves and (what I have called (recall) Newton's 'modal metaphysics' [see also here; here]) from those phenomena and that (those moves) are not overdetermined by the empirical findings. So, for example, what grounds (true) time in God is a constitution relation governed by a species of necessity.

Now this second misconception is not just a terminological matter because for Brading Newton's contribution to metaphysics (and its history) is precisely to allow the kind of distinctions between true and absolute time to "become empirically tractable in the context of the project of the Principia (or some such project)." I think she is right about this, but that she also has a tendency to downplay the extra-empirical conceptual/metaphysical moves (e.g., constitution, necessity, etc.) Newton makes from the phenomena. (That is she turns Newton into an empiricist of a sort I don't think he is.) But I have gone on for too long today.

Notice that everything I have said thus far is compatible with Brading being right about how we should distinguish between true and absolute time in Newton and also that both kinds of time have a place in Newton's physics, that is, the project of the Principia proper. But to settle these matters it is not sufficient to nitpick about her criticism of my view, but I must engage with her "alternative view." [To be continued...]



+To be sure, if you read ancient philosophers you'll see that the motions of heavenly bodies are treated as measure of time or even time itself. So, I am not claiming that what Newton is doing would have been thought remarkable. 

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/08/2020 - 7:34pm in

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation  has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.

BBC 2 Programme Next Week on Possibility of Life on Pluto

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/07/2020 - 8:06pm in

Way back in the 1970s David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust asked if there was life on Mars. Things have advanced since then, and a new programme on BBC 2 next Monday, 6th July 2020, ponders the possibility that life might exist on the dwarf planet traditionally at the edge of our solar system: Pluto. From being a dead world, Pluto is geologically active and possesses organic chemistry, the building blocks of life. Which raises the question of whether life of some sort exists there.

The programme’s titled Pluto: Back from the Dead and the  blurb for it on page 62 on next week’s Radio Times for 4th – 10th July 2020 reads

New discoveries from the edge of the solar system are transforming what is known about Pluto, thanks to the New Horizons space probe that took the first-ever close up images of the dwarf planet. This Horizon documentary reveals that Pluto, once thought to be geologically dead, is an active world of stunning complexity, with mountains carved from ice, a nitrogen glacier that appears to be moving and a recently active volcano. The data sent back has led some scientists to speculate that there may even be life on Pluto today.

David Butcher’s piece about the programme on page 60 adds

There might be life on Pluto. It sounds far fetched, but that’s the conclusion some scientists have reached, and its one of the unexpected new angles explored in this intriguing edition of Horizon.

The insights come courtesy of New Horizons, a tiny spacecraft that travelled 3.26 billion miles to the edge of the solar system, and sent back amazingly detailed imagery.

It reveals a geologically fertile world with, among other features, a nitrogen glacier and a recently active volcano. Moreover, Pluto’s abundant supply of organic molecules and liquid water suggest some form of alien life might exist.

Pluto isn’t alone in possessing mountains of ice. They also exist on Titan and the other moons of the outer solar system. Titan also possesses organic chemistry, which is why scientists are particularly interested in it for clues about the origin of life on Earth. And it was also at one considered that it too may have life. Carl Sagan also suggested that it might even have volcanoes of frozen gas. There’s an illustration of Titan with one such volcano erupting by the astronomy/science Fiction artist David A. Hardy in his and Patrick Moore’s The New Challenge of the Stars. I don’t know if such volcanoes actually exist there. I haven’t seen anything about the Huygens probe to Saturn and its moons finding any.

Scientists also began speculating that life might also exist in the frozen wastes of the outer solar system after someone suggested that the difference of a few degrees’ temperature between light and shadow on them might be enough to provide the energy to drive life. The quantum physicist and SF author Stephen Baxter expanded this into a short story in his Xelee sequence, collected in the his short story anthology, Vacuum Diagrams. I think that story, however, was set further out in one of the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt.

After all this time searching the solar system, I think it’s extremely unlikely that there’s life on Pluto. But who knows, perhaps I’m wrong. It would be truly epoch-making if I was and Pluto did possess a biosphere, even if it was only simply microbial organisms.

The programme’s on BBC 2 at 9.00 pm on Monday, 6th July.