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August 18, 2015

Newton’s non-clockwork universe

The New Atlantis has just published five essays exploring “The Unknown Newton”. It is — bless its heart! — open access. Here’s the table of contents:

Rob Iliffe provides an overview of Newton’s religious thought, including his radically unorthodox theology.

William R. Newman examines the scientific ambitions in Newton’s alchemical labors, which are often written off as deviations from science.

Stephen D. Snobelen — who in the course of writing his essay discovered Newton’s personal, dog-eared copy of a book that had been lost — provides an in-depth look at the connection between Newton’s interpretation of biblical prophecy and his cosmological views.

Andrew Janiak explains how Newton reconciled the apparent tensions between the Bible and the new view of the world described by physics.

Finally, Sarah Dry describes the curious fate of Newton’s unpublished papers, showing what they mean for our understanding of the man and why they remained hidden for so long.


Stephen Snobelen’s article, “Cosmos and Apocalypse,” begins with a paper in the John Locke collection at the Bodelian: Newton’s hand-drawn timeline of the events in Revelations. Snobelen argues that we’ve read too much of The Enlightenment back into Newton.


In particular, the concept of the universe as a pure clockwork that forever operates according to mechanical laws comes from Laplace, not Newton, says Snobelen. He refers to David Kubrin’s 1967 paper “Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos“; it is not open access. (Sign up for free with Jstor and you get constrained access to its many riches.) Kubrin’s paper is a great piece of work. He makes the case — convincingly to an amateur like me — that Newton and many of his cohorts feared that a perfectly clockwork universe that did not need Divine intervention to operate would be seen as also not needing God to start up. Newton instead thought that without God’s intervention, the universe would wind down. He hypothesized that comets — newly discovered — were God’s way of refreshing the Universe.


The second half of the Kubrin article is about the extent to which Newton’s late cosmogeny was shaped by his Biblical commitments. Most of Snobelen’s article is about a discovery in 2004 of a new document that confirms this, and adds to it that God’s intervention heads the universe in a particular direction:

In sum, Newton’s universe winds down, but God also renews it and ensures that it is going somewhere. The analogy of the clockwork universe so often applied to Newton in popular science publications, some of them even written by scientists and scholars, turns out to be wholly unfitting for his biblically informed cosmology.

Snobelen attributes this to Newton’s recognition that the universe consists of forces all acting on one another at the same time:

Newton realized that universal gravity signaled the end of Kepler’s stable orbits along perfect ellipses. These regular geometric forms might work in theory and in a two-body system, but not in the real cosmos where many more bodies are involved.

To maintain the order represented by perfect ellipses required nudges and corrections that only a Deity could accomplish.


Snobelen points out that the idea of the universe as a clockwork was more Leibniz’s idea than Newton’s. Newton rejected it. Leibniz got God into the universe through a far odder idea than as the Pitcher of Comets: souls (“monads”) experience inhabiting a shared space in which causality obtains only because God coordinatis a string of experiences in perfect sync across all the monads.


“Newton’s so-called clockwork universe is hardly timeless, regular, and machine-like,” writes Snobelen. “[I]nstead, it acts more like an organism that is subject to ongoing growth, decay, and renewal.” I’m not sold on the “organism” metaphor based on Snobelen’s evidence, but that tiny point aside, this is a fascinating article.

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August 17, 2015

Newton was not an astrologer

I got a little interested in the question of Isaac Newton’s connection to astrology because of something I’ve been working about casuality. After all, Newton pursued alchemical studies with great seriousness. And he gave us a theory of action at a distance that I thought might be taken as providing a rationale for astrological effects.

But, no. According to a post by Graham Bates:

In a library of 1763 books, (1752 different titles excluding duplicates) he had 369 books on what we would call scientific subjects, plus 169 on Alchemy (including many of the important texts on the subject copied in his own hand), there were also 477 books on Theology. He possessed only four books on astrology; two of these were treatises on astrology, one was an almanac, and one was a refutation of astrology

Bates says that a book on astrology that he purchased as a boy led him to learn about Euclid’s theorems so he could construct an astrologocial chart, but that is the extent of his known interest.

Bates also does a good job tracking down a spurious quote:

There is a story, much quoted in astrological articles and books, about a dispute between Newton and Halley (of the comet fame), supposedly about astrology, in which Newton replies to a remark by Halley “I have studied these things, you have not”.

The actual quote refers to theology, not astrology. So, no, Newton was not practitioner of astrology and there’s no reason to think that he gave it any credence. (Me neither, by the way.)

The post is on the Urania Trust site, which I had not heard of before. The group was founded in 1970 “to further the advancement of education by the teaching of the relationship between main’s [sic] knowledge of, beliefs about, the heavens and every aspect of his art science philosophy and religion.” Given its commitment to taking astrology seriously, the fairness of its post about Newton is admirable.

(Now if I could only find out if Newton played billiards.)

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July 13, 2015

What open APIs could do for the news

In 2008-9, NPR, the NY Times, and The Guardian opened up public APIs, hoping that it would spur developers around the world to create wonderful and weird apps that would make use of their metadata and spread the availability of news.

Very few little happened. By any normal measure, the experiment would have to be deemed a failure.

These three news organizations are nevertheless fervid evangelists for the same APIs—for internal use. They provide an abstraction layer that makes the news media’s back ends far easier to maintain without disrupting their availability to users, they enable these organizations to adapt to new devices and workflows insanely quickly, they facilitate strategic partnerships, they lower the risk of experimentation, and more.

This was the topic of the paper I wrote during my fellowship at The Shorenstein Center. The paper then looks at ways we might still get to the open ecosystem for news that was first envisioned.

The full paper is available freely at the Shorenstein site.

There’s an op-ed length version at Nieman Reports.

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November 26, 2014

Welcome to the open Net!

I wanted to play Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 interview with Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air. Here’s how that experience went:

  • I find a link to it on a SlashDot discussion page.

  • The link goes to a text page that has links to Real Audio files encoded either for 28.8 or ISBN.

  • I download the ISBN version.

  • It’s a RAM (Real Audio) file that my Mac (Yosemite) cannot play.

  • I look for an updated version on the Fresh Air site. It has no way of searching, so I click through the archives to get to the Sept. 16, 1999 page.

  • It’s a 404 page-not-found page.

  • I search for a way to play an old RAM file.

  • The top hit takes me to Real Audio’s cloud service, which offers me 2 gigabytes of free storage. I decline.

  • I pause for ten silent seconds in amazement that the Real Audio company still exists. Plus it owns the domain “real.com.”

  • I download a copy of RealPlayerSP from CNET, thus probably also downloading a copy of MacKeeper. Thanks, CNET!

  • I open the Real Player converter and Apple tells me I don’t have permission because I didn’t buy it through Apple’s TSA clearance center. Thanks, Apple!

  • I do the control-click thang to open it anyway. It gives me a warning about unsupported file formats that I don’t understand.

  • Set System Preferences > Security so that I am allowed to open any software I want. Apple tells me I am degrading the security of my system by not giving Apple a cut of every software purchase. Thanks, Apple!

  • I drag in the RAM file. It has no visible effect.

  • I use the converter’s upload menu, but this converter produced by Real doesn’t recognize Real Audio files. Thanks, Real Audio!

  • I download and install the Real Audio Cloud app. When I open it, it immediately scours my disk looking for video files. I didn’t ask it to do that and I don’t know what it’s doing with that info. A quick check shows that it too can’t play a RAM file. I uninstall it as quickly as I can.

  • I download VLC, my favorite audio player. (It’s a new Mac and I’m still loading it with my preferred software.)

  • Apple lets me open it, but only after warning me that I shouldn’t trust it because it comes from [dum dum dum] The Internet. The scary scary Internet. Come to the warm, white plastic bosom of the App Store, it murmurs.

  • I drag the file in to VLC. It fails, but it does me the favor of tellling me why: It’s unable to connect to WHYY’s Real Audio server. Yup, this isn’t a media file, but a tiny file that sets up a connection between my computer and a server WHYY abandoned years ago. I should have remembered that that’s how Real worked. Actually, no, I shouldn’t have had to remember that. I’m just embarrassed that I did not. Also, I should have checked the size of the original Fresh Air file that I downloaded.

  • A search for “Time Berners-Lee Fresh Air 1999″ immediately turns up an NPR page that says the audio is no longer available.

    It’s no longer available because in 1999 Real Audio solved a problem for media companies: install a RA server and it’ll handle the messy details of sending audio to RA players across the Net. It seemed like a reasonable approach. But it was proprietary and so it failed, taking Fresh Air’s archives with it. Could and should have Fresh Air converted its files before it pulled the plug on the Real Audio server? Yeah, probably, but who knows what the contractual and technical situation was.

    By not following the example set by Tim Berners-Lee — open protocols, open standards, open hearts — this bit of history has been lost. In this case, it was an interview about TBL’s invention, thus confirming that irony remains the strongest force in the universe.

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  • October 7, 2014

    Library as a platform: Chattanooga

    I finally got to see the Chattanooga Library. It was even better than I’d expected. In fact, you can see the future of libraries emerging there.

    That’s not to say that you can simply list what it’s doing and do the same things and declare yourself the Library of the Future. Rather, Chattanooga Library has turned itself into a platform. That’s where the future is, not in the particular programs and practices that happen to emerge from that platform.

    I got to visit, albeit all too briefly, because my friend Nate Hill, assistant director of the Library, invited me to speak at the kickoff of Chattanooga Startup Week. Nate runs the fourth floor space. It had been the Library’s attic, but now has been turned into an open space lab that works in both software and hardware. The place is a pleasing shambles (still neater than my office), open to the public every afternoon. It is the sort of place that invites you to try something out — a laser cutter, the inevitable 3D printer, an arduino board … or to talk with one of the people at work there creating apps or liberating data.

    The Library has a remarkable open data platform, but that’s not what makes this Library itself into a platform. It goes deeper than that.

    Go down to the second floor and you’ll see the youth area under the direction/inspiration of Justin Hoenke. It’s got lots of things that kids like to do, including reading books, of course. But also playing video games, building things with Legos, trying out some cool homebrew tech (e.g., this augmented reality sandbox by 17-year-old Library innovator, Jake Brown (github)), and soon recording in audio studios. But what makes this space a platform is its visible openness to new ideas that invites the community to participate in the perpetual construction of the Library’s future.

    This is physically manifested in the presence of unfinished structures, including some built by a team of high school students. What will they be used for? No one is sure yet. The presence of lumber assembled by users for purposes to be devised by users and librarians together makes clear that this is a library that one way or another is always under construction, and that that construction is a collaborative, inventive, and playful process put in place by the Library, but not entirely owned by the Library.

    As conversations with the Library Director, Corinne Hill (LibraryJournal’s Librarian of the Year, 2014), and Mike Bradshaw of Colab — sort of a Chattanooga entrepreneurial ecosystem incubator — made clear, this is all about culture, not tech. Open space without a culture of innovation and collaboration is just an attic. Chattanooga has a strong community dedicated to establishing this culture. It is further along than most cities. But it’s lots of work: lots of networking, lots of patient explanations, and lots and lots of walking the walk.

    The Library itself is one outstanding example. It is serving its community’s needs in part by anticipating those needs (of course), but also by letting the community discover and develop its own interests. That’s what a platform is about.

    It’s also what the future is about.

     


    Here are two relevant things I’ve written about this topic: Libraries as Platforms and Libraries won’t create their own futures.

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    September 22, 2014

    The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries

    Library Journal has posted an op-ed of mine that begins:

    The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries. That’s a good thing. That future is too big and too integral to the infrastructure of knowledge for any one group to invent it. Still, that doesn’t mean that libraries can wait passively for this new future. Rather, we must create the conditions by which libraries will be pulled out of themselves and into everything else.

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    September 8, 2014

    Progress isn’t what it used to be

    At Medium.com I have a short piece on what progress looks like on the Internet, which is not what progress used to look like. I think.

    I wrote this for the Next Web conference blog. (I’m keynoting their Dec. conference in NYC.)

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    April 27, 2014

    The future is a platform

    Here’s the video of my talk at The Next Web in Amsterdam on Friday. I haven’t watched it because I don’t like watching me and neither should you. But I would be interested in your comments about what I’m feeling my way toward in this talk.

    It’s about what I think is a change in how we think about the future.

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    November 9, 2013

    Aaron Swartz and the future of libraries

    I was unable to go to our local Aaron Swartz Hackathon, one of twenty around the world, because I’d committed (very happily) to give the after dinner talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate Library and Information Studies 50th anniversary gala last night.

    The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)

    Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:

    It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.

    But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.

    When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.

    And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.

    I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.

     


    Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.

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    February 9, 2013

    Why we were better prepared

    The Boy Scouts are right: Be straight prepared. I’m looking out the window at what’s less like a blanket of snow and more like 5 stacked futons of snow. As quaint as a herniated disc.

    Yet New England seems to be suffering the minimum amount of damage conceivable. What did we get right, especially compared with the freeze-in-your-car 1978 blizzard?

    1. Weather forecasting has gotten much better. We were not taken by surprise.

    2. We had appropriate plans in place. I heard, for example, that some local hospitals had arranged a pick-up service for medical personnel who otherwise couldn’t have gotten in to work. And a big hug and cup of warm cocoa to everyone working out in the cold to keep us safe. The nine most comforting words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    3. Our leaders are newly motivated not only by wisdom but also by fear. The price of being unprepared has gone up. I’m not saying our expectations are reasonable. We Americans generally don’t have a theory to explain why bad random things happen. ff afflicted by a natural disaster, we call a lawyer to sue the weather, the asteroid, someone. Still, it keeps our leaders on their toes.

    4. It’s just snow. A lot of snow. You shovel it. You put on cleats once the sidewalks are walkable. For once in your life you don’t drive like a dick. It gets gray, black, and it melts. It’s just frozen water. got spring on our side. So, suck it, snow!

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