Locklin on science

From ancient Gears and Screws to Quantum Mechanics

Posted in Design, metalshop, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 10, 2022

The geared mechanical clock, like the pipe organ and the Gothic cathedral is a defining symbol of Western Civilization. Division of the day into mechanically measured hours  unrelated to the movements of the sun is a mechanical symbol of the defeat of the tyranny of nature by human ingenuity and machine culture. The hours of the day used to be something measured locally by the position of the sun. The liturgy of the hours of the Catholic Church caused north-western Europeans to go all spergy and design intricate machines to tell the monks when to say their prayers, rather than using arbitrary times. After all in the sperdo north, it’s often cloudy or dark very early or barely at all: you need something better than the sun to tell the time.

There’s an oldest surviving clock; that of the Salisbury Cathedral (allegedly 1386). It’s an interesting enough looking mechanism, foliot and verge escapement (the first known mechanical escapement for counting the seconds); you can see it running here. These early clocks had the advantage over water clocks in that you didn’t need to haul water up the tower, and they didn’t freeze in the cold northern winter.

One of the interesting mysteries of technological history; nobody knows where gears came from. A gear is sort of like a wheel, or a pulley system, both of which existed long before the gear. There are claims that the Chinese had them before anyone else; the south-facing wagon is a postulated example, though the first document of it was by Yen-Su in the 11th century, long after such mechanisms were in common use in the West.  As with most of early Chinese history, this isn’t well documented and it may have been nonsense. Unless they influenced the Greeks directly, which doesn’t seem to have ever happened otherwise, the Chinese developments weren’t important in a world historical context.

As with most things, the first documented gears are Greek. Aristotle wrote about them in his physics book around 340BC -around the time of Alexander the Great. Ctesibius was first we know of to write about the things (~250BC) being used in interesting ways; his stuff all lost, but written about by later thinkers; he also invented the pipe organ. It has been suggested that water wheels using lantern pinions were the first gears: we learn of them via Vitruvius (probably originally Ctesibius). We know that Heron of Alexandra had well developed gear trains; he described some effectively like the backgears in a lathe. Archimedes invented the worm gear and pinion used in modern clockworks; possibly also the spiral bevel gears used in differentials.

The most shockingly advanced early geared mechanism is the Antikytheria mechanism. It’s one of those things people didn’t for some reason expect, but if you read old astronomy books, I’m virtually certain such mechanisms are much older. The epicyclic theories of Eudoxus (375BC) and Callippus (330 BC) were pretty explicitly gearworks; later expanded by Hipparchus and Claudius Ptolemy, who was contemporary with the Antikytheria mechanism. It’s entirely possible there were no gearworks before Posidonius (maybe) brought us the Antikytheria mechanism. I suppose it’s possible there were no gearworks after. But it seems vastly more likely we didn’t just randomly pick up a unique space alien technology toy off the sea bed, and there are probably more such treasures still buried in other places, perhaps even sitting somewhere in a Museum storage closet.

My pet theory, for which there is exactly zero evidence, is that gears were very ancient and lost with the late Bronze age collapse. Certainly they had brasses and small drills and the ability to fabricate elaborate objects out of much harder materials. Since the Greeks didn’t mention where they got the basic gear idea, I’m assuming it existed before they started making more clever versions of it. I suppose such things could have existed in some other culture (Sumerian, Egyptian, whatever), but it’s my pet theory; feel free to come up with your own.

The Screw might have been an invention of Archimedes as well, though some historians attribute it to a more forgotten artificer called Archytas (my pal Eudoxus‘ teacher from the time of Plato). Screws were used in the Mediterranean region for olive and grape presses. There is a widespread misapprehension that the science of the ancient Greeks was some kind of theoretical construct: not so. The mechanical and scientific ideas of the great ancient philosophers and the Alexandrian Museum were used by ordinary people on a daily basis. From screw presses to waterwheel contraptions, the Hellenistic and Roman world benefited from the applications of Greek thought.

Gears allow one to change the plane of rotary motion, or the angular velocity of the rotary motion. Screws turn rotary motion into linear motion, generally considerably stepped down in velocity. You need both to make something like a modern clock or a mechanical lathe. Screws are commonplace now and used everywhere, but they really are a wonder. An inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Early screws were made with tools like hammer and chisel, with taps and dies made in the same way, various kinds of ingenious mechanisms to assist the process.

Making the first set of standardized and precise screws took until around 1800, culminating in Henry Maudslay‘s screw cutting lathe which was one of the most important inventions in human history. The screw cutting lathe required a screw and gears, combined together on a rigid lathe bed. The lathe bed is effectively a plane, allowing for precise motion. You can make these with a chisel and scraper/file out of arbitrary chunks of steel or cast iron; hobbyists still carve and scrape their own lathe beds. The leadscrew allowed the cutter to automatically move along a piece of rotating stock to cut another thread in a piece of rotating stock. Changegears allowed one to cut arbitrary threads from stock, by altering the ratio of screw linear motion to workstock rotation. With all these ingredients you can move a cutter along a piece of rotating screw blank an arbitrary amount, making arbitrary pitch screws. What’s more, you can amplify the accuracy of your leadscrew to a certain extent. There are heroic tales of Maudslay creating his master leadscrew that are in their own way as glorious and Promethean as Benvenuto Cellini casting his Perseus statue.

Maudslay is one of those guys who created a whole center of excellence around himself; he was a blacksmith/locksmith who built a classic Klein type-1 organization. He invented all manner of clever devices we now take for granted, from micrometers to various kinds of steam engine and telescope; he was even involved with the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel building machines for his various ventures. Maudsley’s students (it wasn’t a school, it was a high technology business) went on to make numerous further innovations and form their own high technology companies. Joseph Whitworth invented all kinds of machine screw standards (BSW still in use today) machine tools and measuring devices, guns and so on and became enormously wealthy. Joseph Clement built the first version of the difference engine.  William Muir manufactured machine tools, Richard Roberts made locomotives and  power looms, and James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer and shaping machine.There aren’t any substantive books written about this amazing group of men, and the one I know about is expensive and out of print, but if done properly it would make an excellent case study of a Klein type-1 organization. All of these guys were giants of invention and industry and they all got stinking rich inventing new technologies and increasing man’s power over nature. There’s a sort of pamphlet about Maudsley available on archive, which is slightly better than nothing.  I assume there were contemporaries who wrote about them, but they’re mostly forgotten today.

Back to screws; using a screw, you can precisely position things on a nanoscale. I’ve done it, using these little buggers called picomotors. You can buy big giant screws made in temperature controlled oil baths which are capable of similar tricks while retaining their accuracy as well. It boggled my mind when I first read about how this is accomplished; basically the same way most mechanical accuracy is achieved; by lapping with abrasives. You can read all about it in the old Wayne Moore book “Foundations of Mechanical Accuracy.”

Which brings me back to Henry Rowland, father of American physics. It was Rowland who invented the techniques for creating the ultra precise nanoscale screw by manually lapping the screw in a giant split nut. He did this to create diffraction gratings using a “ruling engline.” Diffraction gratings are responsible for the origin of modern physics, as scientists needed them to resolve atomic spectra. And of course as I said in the previous blog, Rowland was by his own self largely responsible for American physics activities in general.

The story of the ultra-precise screw and ruling engine is so insanely awesome I’ll dedicate a later blerg or two to the topic.




32 Responses

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  1. Louis Marmet said, on April 10, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    What puzzles me is how they can make a straight lathe bed! How is the accuracy amplified to a straight line?

  2. Rickey said, on April 10, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    This article reminded me how seemingly mundane inventions enable advanced technology. Without these extremely fine and accurate motor controls, the James Webb Space Telescope would not be possible. It also reminded me of the James Burke documentary “Connections” that I watched in 1978 on PBS and read the accompanying book.


    It is a shame that modern society gives skilled machinists, craftsmen and other artisans the status unskilled day laborers.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 11, 2022 at 8:10 am

      You could see this in my lab days. Almost none of the experimental physics at LBNL could have been done without the extremely skilled old machinist dudes. And they were retiring without passing the knowledge on. You’d also run into hilarious situations with “engineers” working in solid designer making some relatively simple object utterly impossible to fabricate because they’re not thinking about where the CNC cutters will go, so something that would take a day for a skilled machinist to make ends up taking 6 months and not working anyway because a monkey behind a computer is basically a retard compared to someone that works with metal all day.

      I’m 100% certain half the stall in technological progress and crap like cost overruns is because they’ve destroyed the careers and lives of the social class of men who would have been machinists.

    • Frank said, on April 11, 2022 at 8:47 am

      I think that’s beginning to change.

      My general feeling is that since the 80s the West elected to deindustrialise and give white collar office workers in finance the top jobs, while fabrication went to the East. I see this in Eastern and Central Europe where since the fall of Socialism suddenly skills have evaporated, towns and villages have decayed, as people moved to the cities to find their career in corporations (telco, finance) while taking on newly available consumer loans and mortgages.

      However, I sense that today the financial sector is about to be dropped, globalisation reversed, and manufacturing modified to be more domestic. This seems to be starting with Central Bank monetary policies, new types of Central Bank money, and more regulation around crypto, all creating a platform to allow the financial crash of 2007 to finally materialise, to have something in place so that we don’t all go back to the dark ages.

      Incidentally, I strongly suspect these geopolitical shifts fed into Kremlin decision making about Ukraine. While I don’t want to trivialise the situation in Ukraine at the moment, I do think it will become something of a smaller chapter in a much larger story unfolding about today’s world order, and I don’t mean WW3.

      • nate said, on April 11, 2022 at 4:46 pm

        What we got now is a bunch of amoral assholes running things that only care about their own personal bottom line. This no real philosophy, no real thought. Hollow men creating vast bureaucracies that are ripe for ideological take over.

        This is one of the major reasons these large corpos are “going woke”. There is literally nobody in these organizations with a brain in a position of power to oppose them. They simply don’t give a shit one way or the other.

        These people’s life ambition is nothing more then worming their way to the top of organizations in order to get into positions of comfort, security, wealth, and privilege. All without caring much about the people that have to replace them. Whether or not the corporations they operate crash and burn 10 years from now is not particularly relevant. They’ll be to busy living in their mansions and speed boats on a steady diet of caviar and blow jobs to care.

        And the people with world-wide Fascist tendencies have realized that it’s a lot cheaper, safer, and more effective to simply buy loyalty and compliance then extract it out of the end of a gun barrel. And with the central banks they have virtually unlimited ability to do so. All they need to do is create a social credit score for businesses that tie into the availability of cheap loans and government contracts and these corporations will crawl over each other in a attempt to appease you the hardest.

        I think that the “looming collapse” narrative is more wishful thinking then anything else. The regulators of the financial systems are actively plugged into a feedback loop and can now quickly react to any changes in the market that are suspicious or worrisome.

        They cannot grow the economy, but they can certainly slow down it’s rate of change. So that we end up with a multi-decade slow decline that will likely outlast us.

        Slow decay is comfortable. People accept their lot in life. They don’t have to work hard. They don’t have to think too hard either. Just live out their days in the slowly rotting infrastructure built up by their grand fathers. Plugging holes as needed, ignoring the minor inconveniences while mocking people that care. Nobody is going to fight it.
        They would rather just enjoying the slow devolution to Eoli.

        • Frank said, on April 12, 2022 at 1:48 pm

          I agree completely, apart from the nuance around “looming collapse”. I think what technology does is not solve problems but make them irrelevant. I think the financial parasite/cancer that is driving most of what we see in the world that we don’t like will just become irrelevant. I do see China and Russia being the new epicenter of power, with the US rapidly fading, and that will cause ethical shift in large companies that invalidate the woke lunacy we see in the West pretty quick.

          • nate said, on April 13, 2022 at 5:45 am

            Russia and China are worse off then the USA and Europe the way I mentioned above. They have worse governments and are more corrupt. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the people of Russia or China. It is just the situation they find themselves in is no good.

            Essentially the state that end up on top are the ones whose society is going to decay the slowest. Could be China. Could be the USA. I don’t know. Certainly is not going to be EU. And certainly is not going to be Russia.

            It is a contest between which state system is the least incompetent.

            Keep in mind that China is the place were they build ghost cities that people buy up for “investments”…. which start to crumble apart long before anybody gets a chance to move in. They have a policy of infrastructure building that has resulted in the scrapping of a huge portion of the world’s container fleet due to the elevated prices they were paying for steel. A container fleet which they depend on for their economy. They are also actively destroying the biggest economic centers of their country, starving, and regularly imprisoning a large portion of the people living there in a vain attempt to make Xi Jinping’s “Zero Covid” delusion a reality. These are a strong sign that the country is NOT ran by pragmatic realists and instead ran by people that are completely disconnected from reality. Chinese people are extremely capable and have a lot of potential. Their government is not.

            China lucked out through the creation of “Special Economic Zones” like Shenzhen. In these areas they created a localized economic system that was far more capitalistic then anything in the West and the result was massive innovation in terms of industrialization and production. Turned sleepy fishing villages into mind boggling world class cities. Things that take week or months to do in the USA took days to do there. It is a place were you can design something in the evening and have a prototype sitting on your doorstep by the time you get back into the office the next morning. However, as far as I can tell, this was too much of a good thing and Xi Jinping and friends are busy trying to figure out the best way to flush it down the toilet.

            The best we can probably hope for is for China, India, and Russia to get their shit together enough to create a rival to the USA-controlled SWIFT system. This should create international financial system that is a black hole for USA regulators. A place were investments, businesses, and people can escape to if the USA and EU governments start acting too foolish. And visa versa.

            Hopefully this will insert some discipline among our respective “elites”.

            The wildcard is Africa. It has a youthful population, massive land mass, massive natural resources. This is a recipe for continuous series of wars until the population matures (I mean: literally gets older on average), but also means there is huge potential. HUGE. On a scale bigger then China. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up surpassing Europe in the next 50-75 years.

            • Frank said, on April 13, 2022 at 10:57 am

              I think this is China’s plan with CBDC (regarding the financial system).

              Also it depends what you mean about decay. The US social system for the last 40 years is an example of how badly everything can go wrong. It was Americanisation of the UK in the 1980s that destroyed British tradition, values and identity practically overnight. Sure in rural Russia you have hardships but I would very much prefer to live in a small Slavic village than say, Bradford, Leeds, or anywhere in the US, especially in a post-Socialist country, where healthcare is generally better and more affordable than most of Western Europe or the US.

              • nate said, on April 13, 2022 at 2:22 pm

                Due to the Soviet-ization that happened a lot of Eastern European people missed out on the “progressivism” that happened to Western countries from 1930’s to the 1980s. This is related to how Socialism (defined as a central planned economy) works.

                Due to the economic calculation problem (see Mises arguments about Socialism) that is faced by central planners they essentially need to put society into holding patterns for their planning to work. If society evolves on it’s own and people move around and make changes on their own then it is impossible for 5 or 7 or 10 year plans to work. So they have to just lock down society and try to only allow it to move according to their state’s own timelines.

                Which means that Slavic nations, among others, essentially stopped developing for 50-70 years. If you believe that Western society has “gone wrong” then it’s easy to look back at these people and see that they are better off, morally/spiritually/intellectually, then their Western counter parts.

                However this discounts the reality that the increasingly post-modern world we live in, with it’s “woke”-ness, etc. is a natural outgrowth of the modern one. That the ideas about conquering nature and superstition through pure science and reason is what has lead to, essentially the state, promoting transgenderism among children. Because once you conquered external nature all that is left to conquer is our own internal nature. Which is to say mankind. They are focused on transforming human nature itself.

                Which means that the Slavic nations will more then likely “catch up” to our Western ones culturally. The seeds of our culture’s decline also exist in their’s.

                > Also it depends what you mean about decay.

                I mean specifically the decay in the “leadership” of our respective governments. The decay of objectivity, people believing their own bullshit, their ability to see out of their ivory towers and walled gardens that the political leaders exist in and understand the effects their policies are actually happening.

                Just how delusional and out of touch they are. How detached from realty they are. Everybody’s leaders are really bad in this regards, but they are not all equally bad.

                Putin is one of those examples, for the American Conservatives out there… Where the enemy of your enemy can still be your enemy. He is fundamentally just a slightly more competent version of what Nancy Pelosi is.

                • Altitude Zero said, on April 15, 2022 at 5:18 pm

                  Putin’s appeal to many on the Right is that he is one of the very few Western leaders (and yes, he is a Western leader) who doesn’t seem to hate his own people and culture, and want to see them dissolved. That he’s not really any kind of a conservative or a reactionary is obvious, but he actually is farther to the Right than Pelosi,, which, since the man was actually in the KGB, tells you more about Pelosi than Putin. It’s kind of like Trump – Trump was actually just a 1980’s moderate liberal, but he made all the right noises, and pissed off the right people, and actually did stop a few things that needed stopping, so he’s now a populist hero. Putin, like Trump, is very much a substitute for something better, which will come along in time.

        • Corsair said, on April 13, 2022 at 7:09 pm

          Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

      • Scott Locklin said, on April 11, 2022 at 9:01 pm

        “Optimism is cowardice. We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.”

        • Frank said, on April 11, 2022 at 10:31 pm

          We will both be around in ten years to discuss this 😉

        • Walt said, on April 22, 2022 at 7:58 pm

          This is the opposite take of “City of God” which was written during the last days of Rome.

  3. a scruffian said, on April 11, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    It was Rowland who invented the techniques for creating the ultra precise nanoscale screw by manually lapping the screw in a giant split nut. He did this to create diffraction gratings using a “ruling engine.” Diffraction gratings are responsible for the origin of modern physics, as scientists needed them to resolve atomic spectra.

    Funny how the inventions of practical mechanicians, entirely founded on the tractable ideal of rigid euclidean bodies and a finite number of degrees of freedom, led to their Nemesis in field theory (rigid bodies don’t exist, uncountably infinite degrees of freedom) and quantum theory (akshually not even trajectories of mass points exist lol). I always wonder if this nemesis is truly from Nature, is God-given so to say, or is a civilizational effect: a Failure of Nerve, as Gilbert Murray called it in another context.

    Yes, for myself, “I like geometric mechanics” (= “i liek mash potato”)

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 11, 2022 at 9:21 pm

      >a Failure of Nerve…

      Yes, I think this might be true. Consider quantum entanglement. Source of much mysticism and gobbledeygook nonsense. I think also source of quantum computing hysteria, ultimately. ET Jaynes wrote a paper more or less long windedly pointing out it was probably a deep misapprehension of conditional probability. Aka if you have an urn with a red and blue ball, you blindfold, reach in, take a ball, fly to opposite ends of the earth. There’s no phucking FTL, hidden variables or quantum mystical gobbledeygook when you look at the ball and realize what color the other one is on the other end of the planet.

      Click to access cmystery.pdf

      I might write about it. Jaynes might be wrong, but almost every paper referencing this paper seems to think he is correct; to complete silence by the rest of the physics community.

      The West hasn’t recovered from its WW-1 era crisis in confidence, and modern physics lemmings wouldn’t dare question the great men of the fifth Solvay conference.

      • William O. B'Livion said, on April 12, 2022 at 1:43 pm

        Is it a crisis in confidence, or a sort of deep post-christian cynicism? That whole Nietzschean we killed God and now we’re trying to reinvent him thing leaves many “well educated” deeply lost while not even realizing it.

        I had a boss–a decent guy–out in Silicon Valley–with a wife and kid–who attended church, but seemed almost embarrassed about it. He had to sort of wink and nod about it–even with me, an “out of the closet” Libertarian/Conservative.

        “But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,”

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 12, 2022 at 1:54 pm

          A lot of people suppose so, but my pet theory is that WW1 was the West’s suicide pact (blame Nietzsche for it if you like, he was in German soldier pockets anyway), and it’s been zombieland since then.

          I think you’ve been on my various blergs long enough you might remember my making this argument before. Consider something simple like men’s suits; still the formal/business wear of most of the civilized world. Basically it’s British WW-1 clothes.

          Same can be said of many things; almost everything that remains of Western Civilization was fixed in that era; music, art, general technological forms (minus computing), general forms of social organization. They’re all static or dying off. There’s no new operas or symphonies anyone cares about. No poets or art that actually inspires people. People still think modernist crap like Joyce is bleeding edge somehow. And likewise, physics is stuck in the 1920s.

          • Chris said, on April 12, 2022 at 10:07 pm

            This is fascinating. Your brief post on the Edwardian era (and airships) I always found to be your most profound. Can you expand on that Nietzsche comment; did he somehow help to precipitate WW1, or just predict it?

            • William O. B'Livion said, on April 13, 2022 at 1:29 am

              The quote to which I’m referring:

              “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

              This goes into more detail than I can: https://bigthink.com/thinking/what-nietzsche-really-meant-by-god-is-dead/

          • William O. B'Livion said, on April 13, 2022 at 1:26 am

            I’m not arguing *that* our civilization is stuck, although I don’t think it’s as bad as you say–add to computing some *serious* advances in medicine (although things like MRIs are mostly due to computing).

            I just don’t think at it’s root it’s a crisis of confidence, I think that we got to big for our britches–we “killed god”, that the intellectuals, the educated, looked at creation and said “This isn’t what our religion tells us, therefore religion is wrong and useless”, and then they tried to replace religion with The State, which just showed how fookin stupid they were–which (as you note) culminated in WWI, and WWII, and the Cold War, and Jim Jones and a Communist Pope that clearly not only doesn’t believe in the God he speaks for, but also doesn’t believe in the roughly 2000 years of Catholic Doctrine that he sits on.

            And I say that as someone who’s been somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic since I was in high school (and no, I’ve never been fondled by a priest OR a politician)

            You stare into the abyss too long it becomes a part of you.

            Yeah, WWI shook the hell out of European Intellectuals. They thought they’d figured it out–that they were at Fukuyama’s “end of history” 8 decades early. But the rot had already set in too deep, and the response of those idiots wasn’t to look to the past to see what had worked, but to claim that the past was at fault (which isn’t wrong) and that therefore the answer is to erase the past and start over with !Rationality!. Because dopamine and oxytocin are subject to logic, and our innermost desires bend to calculus.

            IIRC you made notice one time of some of San Francsicko’s “radicals” screaming against Nazis during the day, while at night they are bound to a cross and beat by people dressed in Nazi paraphernalia.

            I never get invited to the really cool parties.

            But the problem started earlier, and it still exists.

            On one side you’ve got some pretty idiotic Christians. On the other side some equally stupid Wiccans, Neo-Pagans, New and Old Atheists, Socialists, Communists and Anarcho-syndicalist types.

            One side outright rejects what science tells them. The other either insists that science, engineering and materialism can order our lives and give us meaning.

            • Chiral3 said, on April 13, 2022 at 12:25 pm

              On that subject, and I don’t think this is really what you were getting at, but tangentially, or between the two sides: apart from right-wing fundamentalist Christians or Wiccans and outright flatearthers something interesting is happening now that I haven’t really heard discussed, and that is people are reading more and more “science” than ever. I suppose there’s a direct linkage with “God is Dead”, in the Nietzschian sense, in much the same way that the only movies being made today are shitty CGI remakes of Marvel bullshit, in the Barthian sense, in that people’s identities are foundationally unmoored and seeking attachment points because God is dead etc. etc. Maybe the virus is the best example. There are reasonably intelligent and educated people I know in both camps devouring journal publications and arguing sides. This doesn’t really have precedent. Flatearthers are teaching themselves calculus and studying Goldstein. These people aren’t “anti-science”, they are reading more about science than many college students are being assigned in their major. I think they put restrictions on rational inquiry and truncate arguments to suit very specific positions linked to identity politik in response to really the only thing coming close to trying to kill us these days (apart from self-inflicted death, which is ignored). Things were much more brass tacks and simpler around ww1 and ww2. Nietzsche’s final days were a far cry from his St Moritz days and he wasn’t exactly at peace. There’s no atheists in foxholes.

              • Scott Locklin said, on April 16, 2022 at 11:06 am

                Well that’s what the internet was designed to do after all. Give nerds a place to talk about science. They didn’t realize there would be more nerds.

                I’m not sure people actually have more engagement with science now; at least physically speaking. Go read old popular science and popular mechanics magazines; people used to make shit. While people yell at each other about science papers, I don’t see too many people firing up R and doing stats on covid unless they do such things in their day job.

      • a scruffian said, on April 13, 2022 at 11:30 pm

        I have to thank you for turning me on to E. T. Jaynes a year or two back; I’ve read a lot of his papers from that archive. I liked when calculates an analog of the Lamb-shift for a guitar string, due to the “backreaction” from the air.

        In thermodynamics class I was disturbed by the whole counting microstates thing, because how you define the microstates is an arbitrary choice, and unlike the trivial arbitrary choices in basic mechanics, it makes a difference to the final answer, the entropy. But everyone always talked about entropy as if it were an objective physical thing, there wasn’t even a question about it like there was for the Schrodinger wave. So I’m gratified to find Jaynes telling me I was not actually in the wrong there.

  4. […] 4. How ancient are gears? […]

  5. […] 4. How ancient are gears? […]

  6. Julien said, on April 29, 2022 at 3:17 pm


    First time commentor here, short term reader. My friend turned me onto your blog via the “America Against America” Wang Huning post, and I started reading your other writings, as well. These posts about Machining and Technology History have been very intriguing to me, and as someone who has only walked ankle deep in high school and undergrad science and math, I was wondering if you would have any pointers for books and documentaries I could read to learn more about this history of Machining and (for lack of better phrasing on my part) Applied Science?

    Any words / time you spare my way are greatly appreciated.

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