The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms

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Without a background in the subject, one conjures obscure formulae, levers, ramps, and Galileo dropping weights from atop the Tower of Pisa. Nonetheless, one must appreciate that physical science underpins how the world works regarding motion, force, and energy, and serves as the starting point for nearly all technological advancements.

It is a subject so expansive that many of its laws and implications may be taken for granted. Barry Parker's The Physics of War attempts to focus our appreciation of the science by comparing the history of man's scientific understanding of physical science and man's quest for the next wonder weapon. The book is primarily a work on the history of science and an introductory text on physics. The reader, particularly if a student of military history, must keep this in mind while reading as the historical assertions can be general and somewhat anecdotal.

Physics of Archery - Physics Honors Project

From the onset, the author is clearly a physics professor, ostensibly a fine one, but no historian. Despite allowing for easier understanding of difficult scientific concepts, the folksy and conversational language sets an unauthoritative tone. Too often, he reaches out to less-than-august academic sources on the web such as Wikipedia, How Stuff Works, and About.

When The Physics of War hits on an interesting, important, and well explained topic, the book soars. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory , you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same.

Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe they were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person.

"Broken Arrows" - The World's Lost Nuclear Weapons

So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell. He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it.

Timeline: Weapons technology

And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go to the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell. Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using — not what you think it's using.

And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.


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I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or of being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn't discover anything about rats.

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In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science. I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu.


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In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:.

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To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell. What then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that enable us to determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use.

Ages on ages before any eyes could see year after year thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? On a dead planet with no life to entertain. Never at rest tortured by energy wasted prodigiously by the sun poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar. Deep in the sea all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves and a new dance starts.

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Growing in size and complexity living things masses of atoms DNA, protein dancing a pattern ever more intricate. Out of the cradle onto dry land here it is standing: atoms with consciousness; matter with curiosity. Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering: I a universe of atoms an atom in the universe. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know.

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Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. How can all that be going on in that tiny space?