Tag Archives: curiosity

What we can learn from Thoreau’s testing the “bottomless” Walden Pond (Walden 182)

While measuring the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau noticed that the point of greatest depth lay exactly at the intersection of the pond’s greatest length and its greatest width. Intrigued, he began to wonder. “I said to myself, Who knows but this hint would conduct to the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or puddle? Is not this the rule also for the height of mountains, regarded as the opposite of valleys? We know that a hill is not highest at its narrowest part.”

While he never fully resolved the question, he took preliminary steps to test it.  Ecologist Daniel Botkin wrote a fascinating article about this, “Henry David Thoreau and the Depth of Walden Pond.” (adapted from his book, No Man’s Garden)

In it, Botkin explains how Thoreau’s work is a good example of using a scientific approach to answer questions. The entire piece is worth reading and goes into some of Henry’s other projects that aren’t covered in Walden, but here I will quote only the opening paragraphs: Continue reading

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Belief that Walden Pond is bottomless (Walden 181)

“It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The hole in the bottom of Walden Pond,” there were plenty of strange stories about Walden Pond and its structure and origin. Here Henry comments that, “Many have believed that Walden reached quite through to the other side of the globe.” I don’t know if anyone actually believed that, or if that was just something they liked to say (though people have believed stranger things), but the point here — and one of the things I love about Thoreau — is that he’s the one who decided to actually find out. Here we see Henry the scientist, pursuing the raw data as he “fathomed it easily with a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half, and could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me.”  Continue reading

The hole in the bottom of Walden Pond (Walden 129)

Thoreau's map of his soundings of Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

Thoreau’s map of his soundings of Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

There is something deeply strange about Walden Pond. “The pond rises and falls,” Thoreau wrote, “but whether regularly or not, and within what period, nobody knows, though, as usual, many pretend to know.”

What’s weird is that the water level doesn’t seem to vary with local rainfall. It rises and falls for no apparent reason. Henry said “I can remember when it was a foot or two lower, and also when it was at least five feet higher, than when I lived by it.”

The Concord Magazine reprinted a fascinating 1971 article by Eugene Walker, a geologist and local resident. Walker writes, “Tales are told around town of the hole in the bottom of and the stream that comes through it, connected perhaps to a river that is rumored to run underground from somewhere in the White Mountains, perhaps Lake Winnipesaukee, southward to Cape Cod.”

But the truth, Walker explains, is that the pond’s water level varies exactly with the water table in the sand and gravel that surrounds the lake. In other words the lake bed is apparently porous: Continue reading

Cumulative curiosity

Galaxy Cluster Abell 520 (HST-CFHT-CXO Composite)

Galaxy Cluster Abell 520 (HST-CFHT-CXO Composite), seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University). hubblesite.org

“The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject . . . And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them . . . Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate . . . Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.”

–Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 7, first century (quoted in Carl Sagan, Cosmos)

I love this quote. To me there’s a thrill in reading words from so long ago from a person who could look beyond his own time and comprehend something about the nature of knowledge and cumulative curiosity. His statement is as true and timely today as it was two thousand years ago.

How do you make a really big dinosaur?

Euhelopus, showing the elevated neck posture. Art by DiBgd, image from Wikipedia.

Euhelopus, showing the elevated neck posture. Art by DiBgd, image from Wikipedia.

To me, one of the best ways to read about science isn’t to read about what they know, but to read about what they’re trying to figure out.

We all grew up with pictures like this — unbelievably huge dinosaurs with impossibly long necks. For a kid, a big part of the attractiveness of dinosaurs is their sheer bigness. Not all dinosaurs were large, of course, but from a kid’s perspective, the bigger and weirder the better.

One thing I never considered is how the biology actually works at that size. There’s a problem of scale. If you’re trying to pump blood from a heart up the fifty-foot neck of a Supersaurus, wouldn’t you have to have a massive heart, incredibly high blood pressure, or maybe some sort of auxiliary pumping mechanism to make it work?

Turns out, paleontologists have a lot to say about this. It’s a mystery they haven’t quite unraveled yet. A few months ago Brian Switek posted a fascinating article about this at his “Laelaps” blog at National Geographic. I’ve been meaning to post about it ever since. Continue reading

How books can open your mind

In this brief talk TED staffer Lisa Bu talks about the death of a dream, and how she found a new dream through books. Growing up in China, Bu wanted to be an opera singer. But her parents, who survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, had other ideas. They wanted their daughter to find a safe, well-paying job — specifically, to be an engineer like them. It didn’t matter if she liked the job or not.

No adults took her dreams of opera seriously. By age 15 she was too old to begin training. The dream ended. Searching for a new dream, she turned to books. Eventually she moved to the US.

I hope you’ll listen to her talk, which is short even by TED standards. Here I only want to highlight a few of the points she makes about books. Continue reading

Our islet in the ocean of inexplicability

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possessions.”

–Thomas Henry Huxley, On the Reception of The Origin of Species (1887)

The context here, as the book’s title indicates, is Huxley’s defense of Charles Darwin’s famous book, which Huxley called “the most potent instrument for the extension of the realm of natural knowledge which has come into men’s hands, since the publication of Newton’s ‘Principia’.”

Huxley’s image of an ocean of inexplicability is memorable in the vivid way it combines honest humility and plucky confidence. It expresses the spirit of science, and more broadly the spirit of curiosity.