Friday, September 14, 2007

Isaac Newton and Stephen Wolfram, Angie, Neptune

I certainly think it'll be an interesting--almost metaphysical--moment if we finally have a simple rule which we can tell is our universe. And we'll be able to know that our particular universe is number such-and-such in the enumeration of all possible universes.

It's a sort of Copernican moment: we'll get to know just how special or not our universe is.

Something I wonder is just how to think about whatever the answer turns out to be. It somehow reminds me of situations from earlier in the history of science. Newton figured out about motion of the planets, but couldn't imagine anything but a supernatural being first setting them in motion.

Darwin figured out about biological evolution, but couldn't imagine how the first living cell came to be.

We may have the rule for the universe, but it's something quite different to understand why it's that rule and not another.

Stephen Wolfram
My Hobby: Hunting for Our Universe

Pop writers sometimes wonder if Stephen Wolfram might be the Isaac Newton of our times. But I think it is more meaningful to compare Wolfram to Carl Gauss. Regardless of Newton’s tremendous accomplishments with math, I’ve never read anybody write anything nice about the guy as a person. And although Newton’s telescope design has become the standard among amateur astronomers, it’s pretty clear ‘empowering’ amateurs was about the farthest thing from Newton’s thinking in any context.

Carl Gauss, on the other hand, was both a mathematical genius and an all-around decent guy who always did his best to make a positive contribution to the world of science around him. He may have been the very first person to think seriously about non-Euclidean space. He was the teacher of Bernhard Riemann. And Gauss always kept practical matters in mind regardless of how esoteric his math studies may have been, working extensively with astronomy, cartography and other issues. And he was always willing to discuss math and science with anyone capable of participating, regardless of the social conventions of the era.

Stephen Wolfram is not only conducting fundamental research into the nature of the universe, but through Mathematica he is making sure his research tools and experience also benefit other workers, professional and amateur, involved with math intensive activities.

And even beyond Mathematica, Wolfram frequently takes time to post entries in his company’s blog, The Wolfram Blog, remaining engaged with the amateur science community at large.

That’s pretty cool stuff.


Angie has stopped by the blog a couple times this week, but we haven’t managed to touch base in real life for quite a few days. And I’ve missed her because, if I remember right, she has her birthday around this time of year.

Happy birthday, Angie!


A few days ago, Jim dropped me a note saying that he, too, has recently tracked down Uranus. Observing from near Seattle, Jim has also observed Neptune. Jim has documented his Uranus observing on his blog.

Jim’s note got me thinking about Neptune. I knew I couldn’t observe Neptune with my binoculars. Every time I starhopped through Capricornus I checked again to make sure that Neptune and the guide stars were too dim for my 50mm binoculars. They are. But my telescope is 10mm larger than my binoculars. I wondered if my 60mm telescope could pull in the fainter targets. And I wondered if I’d be able to starhop through Capricornus using the MUCH narrower field-of-view of the telescope.

The answers turned out to be yes. [!] I observed Neptune both Wednesday night and Thursday night! I’ll go into the details of starhopping to Neptune with a long focus telescope in my Monday post next week.

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