In the language of hydraulic engineering, the process eroding the foundation is known as “solutioning.” If that problem is not addressed, what happens next is “piping”: water begins to travel between the voids, moving horizontally beneath the dam. To illustrate, American engineers have devised a triangular chart. The process begins, at the apex, with solutioning, advances through cavity formation and piping, and ends with core collapse and, finally, dam breach—like a Florida sinkhole opening up, unannounced, beneath a shopping center. Engineers jokingly refer to the chart as the “triangle of death.” Schnittker told me, “Once piping begins, there is no going back. In twelve hours, the dam is gone.”
Most of us are slaves to our chronological age, behaving, as the saying goes, age-appropriately. For example, young people often take steps to recover from a minor injury, whereas someone in their 80s may accept the pain that comes with the injury and be less proactive in addressing the problem. “Many people, because of societal expectations, all too often say, ‘Well, what do you expect, as you get older you fall apart,’ ” says Langer. “So, they don’t do the things to make themselves better, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s this perception of one’s age, or subjective age, that interests Antonio Terracciano, a psychologist and gerontologist at Florida State University College of Medicine. Horvath’s work shows that biological age is correlated with diseases. Can one say the same thing about subjective age?
In science, the question of when to believe is a deep and ancient problem. There is no universal answer, and evaluating the merits of any potential discovery always includes considering the prior beliefs of the people involved. There is no way around this.
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This was the genius of the fake signal injection: Whatever the prior belief of an individual scientist might be, it gave him or her reason to doubt it. A scientist who believed that the current generation of instruments was simply not up to the task would have to allow for the possibility that it was. A scientist tempted to elevate a signal because of the benefits of a real detection would have to temper his or her enthusiasm to avoid making a false claim. The fake injection bugaboo forced us to keep an open mind, apply skepticism and reason, and examine the evidence at face value.
It’s possible to build an analogue of the pyramidal orange stacking in every dimension, but as the dimensions get higher, the gaps between the high-dimensional oranges grow. By dimension eight, these gaps are large enough to hold new oranges, and in this dimension only, the added oranges lock tightly into place. The resulting eight-dimensional sphere packing, known as E8, has a much more uniform structure than its two-stage construction might suggest. “Part of the mystery here is this object turns out to be vastly more beautiful and symmetric than it sounds,” Cohn said. “There are tons of extra symmetries.”
Physics, properly understood, is not a subject taught at schools and university departments; it is a certain way of understanding how processes happen in the world. When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature. You might imagine that’s just an archaic usage, but it’s not. When physicists speak today (as they often do) about the “physics” of the problem, they mean something close to what Aristotle meant: neither a bare mathematical formalism nor a mere narrative, but a way of deriving process from fundamental principles.
Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature.
There are all kinds of theories about what makes a room sound good. One of the leading researchers in the field compares concert hall acoustics to tasting wine: some characteristics are easyily classifiable, but perception and taste are part of the equation, too. Another has suggested that understanding the way sound reflects in a room, not the shape of it, is the critical component to good concert hall design.
But the craziest theory comes from a researcher named Zackery Belanger. He thinks that acoustics is primarily a geometric problem, a theory so radical that he was forced out of his Ph.D. program because his advisor disagreed with it.