There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio

19 December 2006

I can’t claim to have read as much history and philosophy of science as some I know, but I am still interested by the occurance of events which seem to beg (or fit neatly into definitions of) philosophical statements. Reading Dr. Free-Ride yesterday, I greatly enjoyed the comic a student drew in response to a question about von Fraassen’s categories of observable and unobservable.

In the comments of the post about the comic, Dr. Free-Ride and PZ Myers engage in a brief discussion about the privileged epistemological position of the senses, and some cases-in-point occurred to me. I can think of three instances where corporate (though somewhat blue-collar) opinion asserted the existence of a phenomenon against either the direct refusal or at least cold indifference of scientific ‘evidence.’ The magnanimous acceptance of these phenomena after ’empirical’ detection by somebody with a PhD seems in direct proportion to the degree of the snub prior to it. Thus, we don’t even get to the problem with observations (which goes back to Popper) about whether I see colors the same way you do, we’re hung up on whether you find me at all credible as an observer.

Whatever, anyway.

The first case is from the Apollo 11 mission, where Buzz Aldrin reported seeing bright flashes while his eyes were closed, or while wearing a blindfold (for sleeping, I think). During experiments on later missions, all the astronauts were able to see the flashes under similar conditions. While the exact mechanism remains obscure, the consensus seems to be that cosmic rays, which are all over the dang place, produce some sort of reaction (maybe Cherenkov radiation, maybe not) when they hit our eyes. This was predicted, and I don’t know to what degree the predictions differed from the observed, but it’s still pretty neat, I think.

Another example of disagreement between observers and theoreticians is the ‘discovery’ in the late 1980’s and early 90’s of colored rays zapping upward from the tops of thunderstorms. Coming in two main colors and shapes, these are now classified as jets and sprites, and they are understood to varying degrees, depending on who you talk to. The interesting part to me, though, is that these red sprites and blue jets were described at least anecdotally by pilots and other observers for a long time prior to the 1980s. As with the next example, they may be the kind of things that, exciting as they may seem after the fact, may be less relevant to the observers’ current situation than some more mundane phenomena.

Last on our list of cryptometeorologica today are rogue waves, thoroughly understood by sailors to be real for about as long as there have been sailors. With the true arrogance of the archaic, however, rogue waves finally arose from the deep and presented irrefutable proof of their own existence on three decidedly modern occaisions: two during the winter of 1994-1995 in the North Atlantic and North Sea, and another in 2001 in the Southern Ocean where two ships about 1000 km apart were struck during the same storm. Note that unlike tsunamis, rogue waves don’t happen near land and therefore suffer from a dearth of observers. New satellite data, pressure sensors, and the like have improved detection of these babies, but just stop for a moment and imagine. Blue water sailing with no land in sight, and normal waves–not necessarily during storms, even–running two to four meters in height (about that of a stoplight). Now, picture a twenty-five to thirty meter wave bearing down on you. While the number of ships actually lost to these waves in the last twenty years is not as high as some accounts give, it is still a pretty impressive thing to consider.

“Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans. For the ocean, deep and black in the depths, is like the low dark levels of our minds in which the dream symbols incubate and sometimes rise up to sight like the Old Man of the Sea. An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a dreamless sleep”

From Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, a good book in its own right; the same quote used as an epigram in The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Everyone should buy and read that bookit is superlative.

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9 Responses to “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio”

  1. Roberto Says:

    is that you using meters? haha.

  2. erikrau Says:

    Actually, I’m not using meters but rather an esoteric unit unfamiliar to most astronomers, and one that is extremely difficult to convert from meters. The units I speak of are the elusive kilometers–rare amongst physicists of all stripes.

  3. Elle Says:

    Let’s not forget that racism, sexism, homophobia etc. all of which deny the input of the senses (if you prick us do we not bleed–from Shakespeare to Sojuourner Truth) and privledge, to the point of sponsoring “science” to back them up, the irrational and untrue.

  4. Lou Says:

    This post reminds me of science’s long flirtation with the idea of spontaneous generation. One cannot tell me that the corner-shop butchers working down the street from the prestigious developing the idea of s.g. didn’t know from whence vermin came. Indeed, Homer writes in the Iliad that the soldiers knew that flies would be coming when they saw maggots on the corpses of their fallen comrades. Academia not only has the capacity to ignore the sense of common men, but it can go so far as to forget what was learned millennia ago.

  5. erikrau Says:

    Lou, your Homeric butchers are very similar to some examples I used when discussing the word ‘anatiferous,’ in a history and philosophy of science class. It is fine for medieval literati to discuss ducks and geese springing from barnacles, but any farmers or serfs who believed that wouldn’t live very long to communicate the knowledge.

  6. Richard Gill Says:

    Vermeer paints light effects which everyone said were impossible… till some physicists discovered that they were real. Vermeer actually saw and reproduced what his eyes saw, not what his brain made out of it.

  7. erikrau Says:

    Richard, though I haven’t seen one in person, my wife has made me quite a fan of Vermeer’s works, and I have read a little bit about his techniques. This article seems to have some good information, but I would be interested to hear about any other sources you can recommend.

  8. Frimbo Says:

    It’s a noble and large subject. I admire your Shakespear to Steinbeck arch over it. It is much bigger than the capacity of either to really explain or touch.

    My theory is that the unbservable realm laughs at our silly world of apparent and solid rationality. We cling to Science to protect ourselves from this affront, not realizing that Science does not take a position…


  9. […] to. And now, according to a New Scientist article (behind the paywall), added to the list of ‘phenomena long classed as scientifically impossible despite robust observations by roughnecks.‘ Since I didn’t pay, either, I don’t know how the rest of the article describes […]


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