Thursday, November 13, 2008

A bad science simile in a good science story

From Longitude by Dava Sobel

Time is to clock as mind is to brain. The clock or watch somehow contains the time. And yet time refuses to be bottled up like a genie stuffed in a lamp. Whether it flows as sand or turns on wheels within wheels, time escapes irretrievably, while we watch. Even when the bulbs of the hourglass shatter, when darkness witholds the shadow from the sundial, when the mainspring runs down so far that the clock hands hold still as death, time itself keeps on. The most we can hope a watch to do is to mark that progress.
The comparison of a watch/time to brain/mind is a bad one; and Sobel should have been able to tell that from what she has written here. Mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain, but time is not an emergent phenomena of the clock! When the brain ceases to function the mind does not continue on, when the watch breaks time does continue on because time is part of the structure of the universe.

Besides the analogy in the paragraph cited above* - which annoys me because it lends itself to promoting mind/body dualism - Longitude is an interesting and quick read about how a self-educated carpenter turned himself into the first person to design a clock and watch consistent, accurate, and durable enough to be taken to sea to be used to measure longitude (by comparing local time to the home port time kept by the clock/watch). In other words, John Harrison (1693 - 1776) was the first person to design a marine chronometer.

We take our ability to establish longitude today for granted, but Sobel recounts how difficult (and deadly) a problem it was as recently as the 18th century. To give an idea of the perception of the problem, Sobel points out that at the time that Britian's Parliament passed a Longitude Act of 1714 to reward prize money to anyone who could solve the problem, "the concept of 'discovering the longitude' became a synonym for attempting the impossible." For example, in Jon Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the title character when looking forward to what he could witness were he an immortal lists " the discovery of the longitude, the perpetual motion, the universal medicine, and many other great inventions brought to the utmost perfection."

Harrison spent his whole adult life working, apparently single-mindedly, on winning the Longitude Act prize. Despite eventually receiving the amount of prize money the act offered, he was never declared the winner, and that seems to be because leading members of the scientific community in charge of deciding the winner were biased towards finding an astronomical solution.

*Blogger's Note - I was expecting someone to call me on my use of simile as opposed to analogy, having rationalized the usage because I wanted to have alliteration in the post title. Since posting this I decided to compromise with myself and replace "simile" with "analogy" in this sentence.


Alan said...

This book was turned into a pretty good movie back in 2000.

It was a British made film, though I saw it on the A&E television network. I recall A&E presenting it as an A&E original, but I could be wrong.

Hume's Ghost said...

I noticed also that there was a Nova special on it as well, back in '98 or '99.

Anonymous said...

Your opinion is that the mind does not continue on after the brain quits working. Isn't the idea of dualism that the mind is something completely separate, and not part of our bodies? Some would call a this a "soul", and souls certainly continue on after the brain quits working, just as time continues after the watch breaks.