Google has released a new upgrade to their operating system for Android mobile phones, and it is a bit of an improvement, so good for them. It is nevertheless endlessly astonishing to me how people can sell you stuff that doesn’t work. In the days when you bought a phone from Western Electric, if it was flawed you returned it and got a replacement or a refund. Google sells consumer devices with buggy software and has absolutely no customer support. Zero. I can understand no customer support for searching the internet or twittering, since you’re not paying for it and it’s funded by other people’s money, but I’m paying for my phone.
For reasons too complex to go into (well maybe not: actually, the logic board seems to have a flaw in it), Apple has kindly replaced my two-year-old 24″ iMac with a new 27″ iMac. I connected the new machine they shipped me overnite to the old one with a FireWire cable; on switching it on it asked me whether I wanted to transfer Applications as well as Internet settings and Documents. I said yes. Two hours later my new machine looked exactly like my old one (except that behind the scenes it was running Snow Leopard rather than Tiger and it was 3″ bigger); the dock still contained every application I have ever used; I didn’t have to reinstall any software again, not Word, not Illustrator, not Mathgematica, not Matlab which requires Xwindows from Unix, not even Parallel Systems and Microsoft Windows XP which runs under it, and the Windows programs I use ran as before and remembered the last file they opened. There is a number to call for help. But I didn’t need it.
I’m always interested in how people get to make discoveries, and Jeremy Bernstein pointed me at Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers, a history of man’s view of the cosmos. I’ve read only part of it. It has a wonderful account of Kepler’s discovery of his three laws of planetary motion. Koestler stresses several things that strike me:
First of all, Kepler’s unique contribution. Many discoveries are part of the zeitgeist; if not for Heisenberg then Schrodinger, if not for Apple then Microsoft, but if not for Kepler, then nothing. No one else came close. And without Kepler, no Newton.
Second, until Kepler, astronomy was about explaining the shape of the orbits. Kepler brought physics into astronomy by focusing not just on their shape, but also on their motion, the speed with which planets moved, the ratio of orbital times to orbital distances. His law that”planets sweep out equal areas in equal times” is the law of conservation of angular momentum. And Kepler came close to understanding gravity. He understood that elliptical orbits are the result of a force from the sun and a force from the planet, i.e. the tension between gravitation and inertia.
Kepler couldn’t have done any of this without Tycho Brahe’s data. And he took data seriously — 8 minutes of an arc was enough for him to invalidate one of his own wrong theories; before him 8 minutes of an arc was ignorable for the sake of complying with Aristotelian principles.
But Kepler didn’t slavishly follow data. He played leapfrog with theory, intuition, guesswork and data, somehow knowing when to pay attention to one rather than another, trampolining from method to method at the right time until he finally, after years, got everything right. And here we are.