Introducing World of Wonders

Joyous essays on knowledge and reality

I’m TJ Radcliffe and this is World of Wonders, a newsletter of popular science in (I hope) the tradition of Asimov and Sagan. My focus is on clear accounts of observations, experiments and ideas in the sciences, from archeology to zoology, with an emphasis both on what we know, and how we know what we know. The current publication schedule is weekly, on Fridays.

Knowledge requires that we manage uncertainty, not seek an impossible and uninteresting certainty. I’m a free-wheeling Bayesian, dedicated to updating my beliefs about what is most plausible in the face of new evidence.

We live in a world where there is a constant flood of new knowledge and an even greater sea of speculation. New results and theories are often reported without enough context for people outside the field to understand, or given a sensational twist. My aim is to describe the context—including the history where it matters—and explain the significance and possible implications of some discovery, with special attention to how likely it is to be wrong. I’m not focused on new discoveries, and will write about long-term problems or old knowledge that I think is unusual or interesting. I take requests!

My perspective is that of a working scientist who has been involved in research in a diversity of fields, with a heavy emphasis on simulation, numerical methods, and hands-on experimental technique. Like most experimentalists, I have a healthy scepticism with regard to theory, and think there is some wisdom in the aphorism that “theorists have never had any trouble explaining the results of experimentalists, even when those results later prove to be incorrect.”

I am a Canadian, and have a PhD in physics from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Academically, I’ve worked at Caltech, the University of Mantioba, and Queen’s, and am one of the 1380 physicists who were awarded the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, in my case for playing a small part in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory collaboration in the 1990s. My last academic appointment was as an adjunct in Pathology and Molecular Medicine at Queen’s: I’ve spent a good deal of my career working in various areas of medicine, including genetics (mostly cancer) and computer-assisted/image-guided surgery systems. I’ve also founded and run a successful scientific consulting company, and been a manager and executive at various corporations, both startups and established enterprises. From 1995 to 2020 I was a licensed professional engineer (mechanical/engineering physics) in Ontario and (latterly) British Columbia.

My interests and expertise are eclectic, and I am profoundly committed to Enlightenment principles of free and open inquiry into objective reality, with a goal of producing uncertain knowledge that will mostly not stand the test of time.

Finally: I’m a poet, and find it stimulating to write under tight constraints. For that reason, and to keep my work focused and entertaining for you, the reader, I’ve decided to restrict myself to precisely 1000 words for each topic I write on (except for this intro note and similar administrivia) as counted by a simple algorithm. A thousand words makes for something long enough to be interesting and short enough to respect your time. I provide sources—everything from Wikipedia to the original research publications when they are available—for anyone who wants to dig deeper.

If you’re interested in understanding more clearly what we know and how we know it, this is the place for you!