Archive for the ‘science’ Category

1421 - The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Arie Hashbia translated the book into Hebrew, and the Hebrew translation was published at 2007 by Korim (1995) LTD. The original was published by Bantam Dell Pub Group (2003), ISBN-10: 0553815229.

The book provides a fascinating account about world discoveries made by Chinese sailors before Columbus and his colleagues.

“Discoverer” - a legal term

It is often overlooked that the European usage of the term “discoverer” is in legal context, rather than being a statement of fact. This is much like assigning a patent to someone, who has the rights over an invention, rather than to the true inventor.

In practically all cases, lands discovered by “discoverers” were already populated by native humans. Those natives are presumably descendants of the original and true discoverers, whose accounts were lost to history.

To be a legal discoverer, one usually needed to be sponsored by a king, bring with him ships, and know how to negotiate agreements with the natives. Even Europeans like Leif Ericson, who discovered new lands without having been sponsored by a king, are not regarded as official discoverers.

Therefore, the claim that China discovered the world does not really contradict the claim that certain Europeans are “discoverers” of certain parts of the world.

Criticism about the book

The ideas given by the book are hotly disputed, and I am sure that the dispute is abetted by some oversights and shortcomings of the book, even though in general it respects the scientific method. The following details some problems, which I found in a single reading of the book.

Missing content

  • There are no details about the trip in the northeast passage (north of Siberia).
  • The Chinese seem to have discovered Australia well before 1421. Yet there is no account about the time and circumstances of the original Australian discovery.
  • There are no more details about hypotheses why the Chinese were not in regular contact with the 15th century Europeans.

Superfluous content

  • Relatively much space was devoted to the early explorations of the Portuguese (like the hypothetical pre-Colombus Antillean islands settlement).

Style comments

Note: the style comments apply to the Hebrew translation of the book, which I actually read. The original English version of the book may be free of those style problems.

  • Refers to Portuguese as Portugals.
  • There is no index.
  • The book is missing modern maps, which mark all the islands, rivers and geographical places mentioned in the trip accounts. Those maps would have provided some contextual information. There are some maps, which show sites of archeological findings, but they do not have names.


In spite of the general respect to the scientific method exhibited by the book, there are some methodological shortcomings.

  • The work ought to have been done as a Ph.D. thesis with the help of an advisor. There are several statements, which were not adequately supported by fact, and which reveal that the work was not done with help of an academic advisor. In other cases, lack of cooperation with authorities was mentioned as a reason for failure to obtain some crucial evidence. A Ph.D. student would have found it easier to get cooperation than an autodidect investigator.
  • Page 444 in the Hebrew version mentions a New York Times article, which criticized the book. However, the Hebrew edition of the book failed to reproduce the major critical points and their refutation by the author. So it was not intellectually courageous.
  • There was mention of plants brought by the Chinese from some areas of the world to other areas. However, it was not explained how do we know that a plant came from territory A to territory B, rather than vice versa.

Follow-on Work

Answers to the following questions would have expanded the book’s scope, so they are suitable for follow-on work.

  • Put the 1421-1423 trips in the context of a larger epic of Chinese explorations of the world - Chinese Sea, Isles of Spices, Australia/New Zealand; and then Africa, Americas, Europe?
  • The history of Indonesia and the isles of spices could be interesting reading at its own right (including account of islamization of the area).
  • Could the Chinese know about America even before 1421?
  • Did the Chinese perform any preliminary research to find the regime of winds and sea currents, so that they’ll know that they’ll eventually return? Such a research could have been performed by floating bottles in the waters.

Mad Scientists!

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

Did you think that mad scientists exist only in pulp Sci-Fi stories and in James Bond 007 movies?

If so, The Top 20 Most Bizarre Experiments of all time will set you right!

This Web page is not for the squeamish, and it features delightful experiments such as two-headed dogs, human-ape hybrids, and getting people to kill puppies by electrical shocks.  Reading that several of the experiments were performed by Soviet scientists made me feel as if I am reading a real life enactment of the secret labs of Luthor Corp.

Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Few months ago, I at last bought my copy of “A New Kind of Science” by Stephen Wolfram (ISBN 1-57955-008-8). I expect to finish reading the entire book few months from now, and then go on to reading other books.

The book fulfilled my expectations of being interesting and intellectually stimulating book.

The first observation, which I made from reading the book was that (more…)

Static vs. dynamic aspects of brain structure

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

There is a book called “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins, and it is about yet another theory of the human brain’s operation. The author pointed out several gaps in current researches in neurology and AI.

However, the book dealt with static aspects of the brain’s structure. It omitted the dynamics. In particular, the following points were not covered:

  1. Factors affecting formation, destruction and strength of synapses connecting two neurons to each other (see also: Hebbian learning).
  2. Growth of axons and dendrites - where do they prefer to grow?
  3. Initial wiring in a fetus’ brain.
  4. Existence and effect of any chemical means for non-local communication between neurons.
  5. How are new neurons created and how do they integrate into the existing network?

The only dynamic aspect of brain operation, which was dealt with by the book, was the firing pattern of neurons.

Uncertainty of truth of mathematical proofs

Monday, February 20th, 2006

According to the article Mathematical proofs getting harder to verify, it is now very difficult and sometimes impossible to be certain about the correctness of mathematical proofs.

I can envision the rise of the special profession of mathematical patching. It would work as follows.

  1. A fundamental theorem is proved, but its proof is difficult to verify.
  2. A lot of mathematics is being based upon that theorem.
  3. Another fundamental theorem is proven and receives similar honorable status in mathematics.
  4. A contradiction is found, which means that both theorems cannot be both true.
  5. In order to save the rest of mathematics, the theorems are patched.

Patching, in this context, means adding qualifications to the theorems, so that fully-qualified versions of the theorems do not contradict each other. The qualifications will be based upon the actual way the theorems are used in subsequent mathematical development, which is normally less than the full generality of the theorem.

Neuroscience is now fashionable due to Ariel Sharon's brain former influence

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Neuroscience Tutorial - an illustrated guide to the essential basics of clinical neuroscience.
Neurosciences on the Internet.
There are also other related Web sites.

Jun. 11, 2012 update:  the link to neuroscience tutorial has died.  Adie Harrington suggests the following resource:

Even water can be rabid

Sunday, December 25th, 2005

Are you a time traveller? If yes, the following is must read for you!

Friday, October 14th, 2005

Best Practices for Time Travelers

What I wrote 16 years ago, as a bored physics M.Sc. student

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

1st Joint Conference Between Earth Physicists and Epsilon Uridani Physicists

5. Discussion about Quantum Mechanics

E.U. present their model of the microscopic universe and their key thought experiments.

Earth present Quantum Mechanics.

E.U. physicists ridicule it - citing quickly all those paradoxes (such as EPR, quantization of gravitation, etc.). All paradoxes except for two are already familiar to Earth physicists.

E.U. criticize also the thought experiments, starting from Stern-Gerlach experiment. Their attack is on the fact that the abstractions have not been properly constructed. Some of the neglected details are, in fact, very important.

Then, a review of the histories of the ideas is made.

E.U.: WHAT?! Your physicists do not learn epistemology?!!!


The Earth physicists took advantage of playing with symbols without referents: their mathematics is very developed. E.U. can use several mathematical concepts developed on Earth for their physics research.

Venus Transit

Tuesday, June 8th, 2004

Yes, I have seen* it!

*given a suitable definition** of “seeing”

**It is not advisable to look directly at the Sun under any circumstances. Therefore the Venus transit can be safely viewed only via some instrument such as a telescope. I saw it via a more complex instrument, which consisted of a telescope, camera, Internet connection ( and my PC. The fact that I did not see it at real time does not really matter.