Tag Archives: science

Review of “The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind”

Screenshot from 2018-02-15 07-58-17

19th-century painting depicting Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato in 1609



I just finished reading A.C Grayling’s “The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind”.

This book covers a lot of territory in 324 pages. In summary, it’s about how the scientific revolution of the 17th century amidst the tumult of religious war resulted in humans coming to see the world very differently at the end of that century compared to the beginning.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the educated elite of Europe still believed in geo-centrism; by the year 1700, most of the educated elite believed the earth revolved around the sun, among other things.

One of Grayling’s most controversial assertions is that the 30 years war(1618 – 1648) acted as a midwife of the birth of the modern mind. This war was the most destructive in European history until World War I. Millions of people were killed as a result of the 30 Years War, mostly in Germany(which was then called the “Holy Roman Empire”, a loose confederation of German-speaking states primarily divided by religion) where it is estimated that 1 in 3 Germans perished. Many other historians and philosophers disagree with Grayling, believing this war greatly hindered scientific and social progress.

Grayling argues that however devastating this war was, it greatly weakened the Catholic church which had long suppressed free-inquiry, which is essential for science. Wars can also have a direct effect on material science, as rivals figure out how to better engineer weapons(he makes an analogy with the vast improvement of rocketry during World War II by the Germans).

Grayling also argues that the scientific advances of that era were essential for or at least concomitant with social and philosophical advances that led to modern secular democratic states. It just makes sense that if humans are no longer assumed to be at the center of the universe, lots of other erroneous assumptions can also be questioned and pushed aside, including the divine right of kings. This kind of thinking played a huge role in the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. This paradigm shift also paved the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid 19th century which put an end to the idea that humans are God’s special creation(as I said before, this book is like a prequel of Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”).

One little thing that surprised me was the author’s contention that the scientific revolution influenced language, particularly English, French and German. The clarity and precision required for scientific thinking and writing also influenced language in general, according to the author. He even contrasts the long-winded, opaque writing of English authors of the early 17th century with the more clear, economical writings of late 17th century authors to make his point(also remarking that one of the things classicists of the era most admired about ancient Greek and Latin writers was their directness and clarity).

One thing that surprises many people is how practically all the early scientists who launched the scientific revolution were not only very religious but were also alchemists or occult enthusiasts forever searching for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. Doing real science was more like a side project for some of them. I was already aware of this(in particular when it comes to Newton), but he goes into great detail about how much science had to disentangle itself from alchemy and pseudoscience to become science as we practice it today.

Toward the end of the book, while Grayling celebrates the triumph of scientific rationalism, he warns about attempts at reversing the progress we’ve made since the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Reason and free speech are under assault, and not just by the religious but by political extremists. I’d also add that the “new age” and various pseudoscience movements are also a threat.

All in all, a good book if you’re into the history of ideas and understanding how the world came to be the way it currently is.

The benefits of upper body cardio

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for many years, or secretly invented a drug that provides the benefits of exercise without actually exercising, we all know we have to exercise. The real question when it comes to exercise is “how?”.


When most people think of cardio, they think of exercises that primarily use the legs: walking, running, and cycling. Even many otherwise fit people often neglect to do endurance work on their arms if their favorite cardio exercise is a leg exercise.

A cardio workout that includes both the arms and legs may be more beneficial than a workout that exercises either alone – Aerobic exercise training programs for the upper body. In fact, arm cardio all by itself has some interesting benefits: Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Apr;20(2):136-41 – “Effect of arm training on central and peripheral circulatory function.”

The data suggest that endurance arm training as prescribed in this study elicits significant circulorespiratory function adaptations to support improved performance in both arm and leg work. Further, the findings suggest both a specific and general training effect, with the more dominant effect specific to arm work

This is pretty remarkable. So doing arm cardio can benefit the entire body, including the legs, not just the arms.

This raises an important question, and this is especially important for jogglers – Are the arms and legs in competition for cardiac output? Luckily, some scientists at the The Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, have already tried to answer this:

Oxygen transport to working skeletal muscles is challenged during whole-body exercise. In general, arm-cranking exercise elicits a maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) corresponding to approximately 70% of the value reached during leg exercise. However, in arm-trained subjects such as rowers, cross-country skiers, and swimmers, the arm VO2max approaches or surpasses the leg value. Despite this similarity between arm and leg VO2max, when arm exercise is added to leg exercise, VO2max is not markedly elevated, which suggests a central or cardiac limitation. In fact, when intense arm exercise is added to leg exercise, leg blood flow at a given work rate is approximately 10% less than during leg exercise alone. Similarly, when intense leg exercise is added to arm exercise, arm blood flow and muscle oxygenation are reduced by approximately 10%. Such reductions in regional blood flow are mainly attributed to peripheral vasoconstriction induced by the arterial baroreflex to support the prevailing blood pressure. This putative mechanism is also demonstrated when the ability to increase cardiac output is compromised; during exercise, the prevailing blood pressure is established primarily by an increase in cardiac output, but if the contribution of the cardiac output is not sufficient to maintain the preset blood pressure, the arterial baroreflex increases peripheral resistance by augmenting sympathetic activity and restricting blood flow to working skeletal muscles.

(Emphasis is mine)

Leg blood flow 10% less during arm/leg exercise, than leg exercise alone? This is significant, and I must admit that when I joggle it certainly feels like this sometimes. But then at the same time, don’t forget the general fitness benefit from arm cardio suggested by the first study. So it may be 10% less than a higher blood output rate than if I were only running. In other words, a higher fitness level that is the result of leg/arm combination cardio is being compromised than a lower fitness level that is the result of mostly leg cardio. And don’t forget that unless you’re joggling with 3 heavy balls(or 4 or more light balls), juggling isn’t as intense as rowing, so it may be a lot less than 10%.

So if for whatever reason you can’t run or walk long distances, juggling by itself can also provide aerobic benefits. Also, if you joggle, or you are considering joggling, your leg speed may be slightly compromised, but it’s not really a big deal and the juggling may be making you fitter than if you were just a runner.

Awesome new book about fitness

I recently read Alex Hutchinson’s “Which comes first, cardio or weights?“, and found it very helpful. Hutchinson is not just a runner and a journalist, he also has a Ph.D. in physics. The book attempts to answer many commonly asked questions about exercise, and uses a science/evidence based approach to answer them. This is the best, most awesomest approach, in my opinion.

When the evidence isn’t clear, he says so. He is very familiar with the latest scientific literature regarding fitness. It is refreshing to read a fitness book based on science; all too often, fitness/health authors push pseudo-scientific ideas that may be useless or even harmful. It is also refreshing that Hutchinson is not using the book to hawk supplements, exercise equipment or videos, which are often intertwined with the pseudo-science the author is pushing.

Among the questions Hutchinson answers are:

1) How much should I drink to avoid dehydration during exercise?

2) Will stretching help me to avoid injuries?

3) Is it possible to be fat and healthy at the same time?

4) Should I have sex the night before a competition?

5) How should I pace myself for a long-distance race?

6) How can I adjust my chakras so I can run faster? (just kidding! This is NOT in the book!)

Among dozens of other common and uncommon questions. Some of the answers may surprise you. For example, scientific studies suggest that stretching does not help prevent injuries – because of this, I almost never stretch anymore.

Besides not wasting precious time stretching, I’ve found a lot of other information in the book beneficial for my fitness routine. While the book doesn’t cover fitness juggling or joggling, the general fitness information it contains may also benefit fitness jugglers. I highly recommend it. I have no connection to the author.

I also recommend reading the scientific literature yourself whenever you can. It won’t be long before this book becomes dated and certain recommendations may even change over time as new scientific evidence comes in.

Happy juggling!