A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.--Leonard Cohen
I meant this title to this post quite literally—among the earliest mostly-accurate estimation for the speed of light (“c”) was made by Fizeau in 1849, and he not-literally made an image of what the speed of light “looked like”, the last dot in a crack that let the light in. It followed several hundred years of thinking on the speed of light including experiments employing lanterns (Galileo),the Moons of Jupiter (Ole Roemer), rain and starlight (James Bradley), and which in turn followed thought experiments by Empedocles, Aristotle and Descartes, who reckoned the speed of light to be instantaneous. The Parisian physicist Armand Hippolyte Louis Fizeau (September 23, 1819 – September 18, 1896) acted on a beautiful idea and constructed an elegant apparatus (again using lanterns) to make the first modern estimate of c.And, basically, as soon as he was finished and published the results in the Comptes Rendus in 1849, Leon Foucault—with whom Fizeau worked on many occasions—improved the apparatus and made an even closer approximation.
The way the apparatus worked was simple and powerful: Fizeau observed a light through an optical apparatus with a rotating toothed gear between observer and the entry of the light source; a mirror that was more than 5 miles away reflected that beam back through those same geared teeth of the disk. The disk could be made to rotate at specific speeds, the object being to calibrate the disk to prevent the light from going through the teeth of the gear to the mirror and then back again through the same gap. The point at which the dot o flight disappeared could be easily calculated and the speed of light extrapolated from there--which Fizeau estimated to be 313,300 Km/s or 194,410 miles/second. (In 1850 Foucault replaced the toothed gear with a mirror and produced a more accurate estimate of 185,093 miles/second, which in fact turns out to be very close to c.
Cases of High Recognition, Removal of Recognition, Failed Recognition and Imaginary, Never-Should’ve-Been-There Recognition
The laws of thermodynamics have a somewhat complex parenthood, but it is the relationship of Helmholtz and Mayer in the First Law that we’re interested in here. In short, the great three laws (in short) state: Energy can neither be created or destroyed (First Law); All spontaneous events act to increase total entropy (Second Law); Absolute zero is removal of all thermal molecular motion (Third Law). Carnot (in a brilliant 124-page paper Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire), Joule and Helmholtz are generally associated with creating the First Law (with Clausius, Gibbs and Boltzmann for the Second and Nernst for the Third).
It was Helmholtz who provided the mathematical proof (in 1847, in his "Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft" "On the Conservation of Energy," ), the basis of the law of the conservation of energy. But even though he was the first in this particular part of the thermodynamics universe (which he later famously and incredibly declared in 1856 to be “dying”), he recognized the previous related work—which he evidently did not use or perhaps even know about—of Robert Mayer (1814 -1878) (1841, “Remarks on the Forces of Nature”), who basically stated that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, which is the sharp tooth of the law. The paper just showed up where it shouldn’t’ve. Helmholtz recognized its importance and later insisted on Mayer having priority in discovery—there was plenty to go around, really, and especially since it was Helmholtz who gave the law its mathematical foundation. It is just a very fine showing of intellectual appreciation and scientific ability that Helmholtz recognized the contribution of Mayer in such a fashion. (Helmholtz, a great experimenter, theoretician and teacher, makes frequent appearances in my wife Patti's blog--have a look!)
Etienne Marey, who we have seen before in this blog, was inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of motion—whom he credited of course—and who I think expanded upon and exceeded those achievements. Marey had a multi-field career and didn’t really want for much, professionally speaking, but there is a pretty significant slight in that career that bears. His photographs of horses in motion were stunning and shocking—being among the best photographs ever made showing the horse in all stages of motion. But when they were expansively included (used from sources like Marey’s “The Science of the Horse’s Motions” Scientific American, October 19, 1878) in J.B.D. Stillman’s The Horse in Motion in 1882, they were done without attribution, which is not a nice thing, as it would have been impossible for Stillman not to have known the origin of the source of his images—impossible. He just decided not to include Marey’s name.
On the other hand, coming back to the non-recongition of Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in the discovery of the background radiation of the universe—“discovered” by Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs in Holmdel—even though their earlier papers in 1939, 1946, 1947, 1949 and 1950 pointed the way, Penzias and Wilson didn’t know of them, didn’t use them, and found the thing on their own. By accident. Still, though, it would’ve been nice for them to mention Alpher and Herman in their Nobel speech. But they didn’t. They should’ve.
Lastly, the Imaginary Recognition bit—this is more accurately called a “hoax”. Perhaps one of the most famous cases—and perhaps the meanest—was in the case of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667-1740) the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg in Germany. Beringer was himself a mean man, proud, ill-spirited, boasting and ponderous, and of little patience to those who disagreed with him. So he was a public man with many enemies—a vocal, unrepenting man with enemies—and his enemies decided to have a go at him, salting a field in which he collected geological specimens with incredible, spectacular, impossible samples. The samples spoke to his own geological-theological beliefs—in which god is never ever wrong—and the overly-excited Beringer ravenously collected/found them, and then, after a while, decided to publish a book on them. But before the book became a reality the fossil-planter s attempted a change of heart, trying to divert Beringer’s attention away from the possibility that the stones were real, going so far as planting fossils with shooting stars, Hebrew characters, and the like. Beringer proceeded on with publication (and his “lying stones”), and then after publication, all became revealed, basically ruining everyone. It was a mean escapade, al the way around, and a huge waste of time. Perhaps everyone got what they deserved.
The 1895/1896 issues of Nature magazine are compliantly normal until the first weeks of 1896 when the first of a flood of articles is published about the astonishing discovery of 50-year-old Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. The English-language popular science journal announcement of his December 28, 1895 “Ueber eine neue Art von Strahlen" ("On a New Type of Ray"), appearing 16 January 1896, began the introduction of a new state of human experience. His experiments—built upon the work of J. Plucker (1801-1868), J. W. Hittorf (1824-1914), C. F. Varley (1828-1883), E. Goldstein (1850-1931), Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), H. Hertz (1857-1894) and the odious Phil Lenard (1862-1947 and who didn’t die soon enough)—revealed as much to humans as did the experiments and inventions of Hooke and Leeuwenhoek on the invisible worlds revealed by the microscope. There are more than 150 articles on the Roentgen (and soon to be “X-“) Ray, all published within 12 months of the original announcement, almost all excitedly, trying to comprehend, elucidate, expand, verify, this new world.
[The news of the discovery is first and most popularly reported in the January 6, 1896 London Standard: “The noise of war's alarm should not distract attention from the marvelous triumph of science which is reported from Vienna. It is announced that Professor Routgen (sic) of the Wurzburg University has discovered a light which for the purpose of photography will penetrate wood, flesh, cloth, and most other organic substances. The Professor has succeeded in photographing metal weights which were in a closed wooden case, also a man's hand which showed only the bones, the flesh being invisible”. By the end of the month the news was completely absorbed, worldwide.]
I looked at the advertising in these issues (my copies of Nature for these decades generally have the original paper wrappers for the weeklies, complete with ad copy), looking for the first time that a Roentgen machine was offered for sale to the general public. As it turns out, they popped up 12 March 1896 (once), 19 March (twice), and then about once a week for the rest of the year. A little surprising, I think, a little light to my Monday-morning quarterback’s eye—I expected more; bigger, more, splashier. But the ads are small and sedate, hardly similar to the discovery they represent.
The rest of the world, the rest of the advertising world, stayed the same--the Roentgen discovery and the enormous possibilities and promises of his “new photography” lived in their own unique sphere, unencumbered by their sassy new brother. This mild response seems dimmer still when you compare it to that which greeted other (relatively) simple but still major advancements in the world of photography. Take for example Etienne Marey, who was a technoid and physician who was able to capture motion of all sorts--he was able to develop a picture so to speak of the movement of blood in the body via his instrument to calculate blood pressure, and he also created a shotgun-style camera that made the world's first high-speed photographs of movement. And so it cane to pass that in the late 1870's and early 1880's people were instantly able to see what a horse looked like when it galloped or what the body did *exactly* when jumping over a chair. When you couple this with fourth-dimension material one wonders why it took several more decades to bump into these images in the art of 1907+.
And what indeed was normal in these pages? Magic lanterns and magi lantern slides appear at all levels; the gorgeous Wimshurst machine gets heavily advertised; the redoubtable Negretti & Zambra advertised all manner of excellent scientific instruments (biographs, thermogrphs. Nadeer Bros. advertised a pretty standard cell, and the ancient Crossley displayed their “new” oil engines, “suitable for all classes of agricultural work”. J.H. Stewart was selling their semi-automatic electric arc lamp, while across the page was Newton & Company’s “Newtonian” arc lamps for lanterns (“self feeding and focus keeping”). Microscopes and prepared slides abound, and Thomas Bolton advertises discretely and effectively for their “living specimens for the microscope”.
The Physical Review, the American upstart in the science world advertises that its third volume was available, while its distant cousin, the Psychological Review, advertised its own third volume. Booksellers seem to take the most space, thank goodness.
There are a few medical throwbacks: Epp’s Cocaine takes out occasional tenth-page ads for their “cocoa-nib extract, tea-like” selling its ‘gentile nerve stimulant”. Right underneath is “Holloway’s Pills”, promising to cure biliousness, sick headache, indigestion, and all (?!) internal complaints. These are brilliant simple samples of the skeleton of science in world-dominant Great Britain, in a world dominated at that time by H.A, Lorentz, Ernst Mach , Roentgen, Korteweg, de Vries, Bateson, Jean-Baptiste Perrin, Pierre Curie, Zeeman, Becquerel, Joseph Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Marconi, Ramsay, Fitzgerald. And so on.
Nothing offered for sale here offered any significant clue to the pregnant world of modernity that was nearly there—the world would become ‘modern” almost immediately following Roentgen, with revolutionary, epochal changes in art (in non-representational form more so than Impressionism), theater, literature, music. Just about everything changed (except politics). But there is no hint to paradigm shift hidden in the ads, just as they were with the machines selling the promise of Roentgen’s “new photography. There’s something about the fine glass, superb turning of the screw, and a perfectly oiled gear though that makes this sort of perfection seem so lonely in the world of larger change. Bertha, Roentgen’s wife, sat for 15 minutes while her husband passed his rays through her hand; she ran from the room once she saw the results, revealing her very bones and no doubt a strong sense of the
fragility of life, and the strong presence of death. Many had the same reaction to the Kandinsky's shapes and Malevich’s white circles and red rectangles and Ibsen’s drama and Einstein’s dancing dust and the rogue syncopation of jazz. It is probably a very natural reaction to try and protect established memory—but memory should be more flexible than that, I think, to keep a healthy mind.
“When the father and creator saw the creature which he has made moving and living…, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to...make the universe eternal, so far as might be. …Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time… Such was the mind and thought of God in the creation of time. The sun and moon and five other stars, which are called the planets, were created by him in order to distinguish and preserve the numbers of time… And for this reason the fixed stars were created, to be divine and eternal animals, ever-abiding and\ revolving after the same manner and on the same spot…” Plato, in which he wrote about the formation of the universe, among many other things, (Jowett. v. 2. Timaeus, p. 19), and spotted at the Linda Hall [Science] Library here
Well, not exactly, but this was some pretty good thinking by Plato for his time, and beyond that--actually, the thinking was held for centuries. But it was some very nice thinking by (Danish) Ole Rømer that pieced this part of Plato out, turning it around, and coming to terms with the use of "the order of heaven" to "preserve the numbers" of the speed of light, all through the observation of eclipses of Jupiter's moon Io.
I should first say that today's post came about via Peter Horrebow's (1679-1764) Operum Mathematico-Physicorum... , a three-volume work published in Copenhagen in 1740-41. Horrebow was a very accomplished astronomer in his own right (we'll get to that in a moment), but what is of interest for me right now is the third volume of his book, as it (the Basis Astronomiae...) contains very detailed descriptions of the astronomical instruments and observatory of his fellow Danish astronomer Rømer (1644-1710). Horrebow must have been a very gifted machinist and man-about-the-"lab", as he was able to make his way through the educational system and then to the highest levels of academia even though beginning his life as a fish-seller's son--an extraordinary accomplishment, really, as there were not many opportunities for people without some sort of privilege to succeed on this level. And succeed Horrebow did, serving as the great Rømer 's assistant and charge, living in the man's house for some time. (He didn't stay for very long, as Horrebow was a father of twenty.)
There are some famous illustrations in this book--not the least of which is the depiction of Rømer at work on a transit in his observatory--but the image I like most of all is not one of the instruments, but a beautiful engraving of the observatory built by Charles IV. The massive structure--called the Rundetam--was begun in 1637and finished in 1642; it is as its name suggests a "round tower" that rises 34 meters; it has no stairs using a 7.5-turn walkway instead. (It is a confusing thing, walking 'round to go up, and seems to me to have been much more than just seven turns; in a weird way by the top of the walk it felt as though one was going "down" somehow. Maybe I just got dizzy.) In any event the tower would be an observatory, with Rømer (and then, later, Horrebow) working from the roof as well as from some high windows, and was meant to replace the great Tycho Brahe's demolished Stjeneborg
[Cross-section of the observatory.}
Rømer's career was remarkable, but what I find particularly beautiful was his determination of the speed of light, and all from basically sitting there with his instruments in a window of a massive stone structure in the middle of a city, figuring out minute differentiations, making detailed observations of eclipses of the moons of a planet that had only been observed telescopically less than 67 years earlier (with the newly-invented instrument, the telescope).
The moons of Jupiter had been observed in 1666-1668 by Cassini and were a subject of intense study by him and Rømer, among others; Rømer in fact would travel to the Paris observatory and be an assistant to Cassini as the two worked together on the moons and eclipse observations. In this Rømer noticed a particular peculiarity in the changes of the times of these eclipses, becoming shorter when the Earth was closer to Jupiter and longer when farther away. From this Rømer concluded that light was taking different times to reach the Earth, and from their calculated its speed. He reported to the Royal Academy of Science on 22 August 1676:
This second inequality appears to be due to light taking some time to reach us from the satellite; light seems to take about ten to eleven minutes [to cross] a distance equal to the half-diameter of the terrestrial orbit.
What a jewel that was to give to the world! It is difficult to imagine the impact of this sort of announcement in the first three-quarters of a century of the telescope, to be able to calculate something as elusive as the idea of the speed of light, and that coming from the observation of moons of another planet. This was the first true quantitative measurement of the speed of light--there were earlier attempts (by Isaac Beekman and Galileo), but while their ideas for measuring were interesting and theoretically workable the instrumentation for recording minute differences in light flashes were not. (For example in the Galileo experiment (measuring the differences in the light of exposed lanterns a mile apart, the time was not measurable. If it could have been measured the answer would've been 10 microseconds; at that time the idea of the "second hand" a clock had not yet come to be.) Rømer established that the speed of light was finite, and gave a value that was within about 25% of the modern standard, or at least 220,000 km/sec. Galileo's earlier best estimate was that light was at least ten times that the speed of sound. (HE was right, of course, light is at least 10x sound, but the capacity for more accurate observation and instrumentation were just beyond his age.) This was a truly remarkable accomplishment.
The observatory had a relatively short shelf-life, what with light pollution and the rumble and vibration of city traffic doing it in by the mid-18th century; so for its size and heavy fullness, the building lasted a little more than a century as a useful observatory.
We shall find that it is the peculiar function of physical science to lead us . . . to the confines of the incomprehensible. —J. C. M., 1860
What is done by what I call myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.—Comment made by Maxwell to the Reverend Professor F.J.E. Hort in 1879 when terminally ill.
[Both quotes found in Fred Seitz's article in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2001, "James Clerk Maxwell, (1833-1879), Member APS 1875".
This note may restrict itself to a small population of readers of this blog, but I'm always fascinated to come upon notices of the reading habits and library book-borrowing practices of significant people. For example Herman Melville's reading has been particularly studied, with scholars hunting books that had once belonged to him and then dispersed at auction (some going to the Brooklyn Public Library), and there are records of his borrowing practices at the library as well. Thomas Jefferson's reading habits is a well-known and fascinating study (though he did little borrowing, per se, what with there being few borrowing libraries for him to visit, and then of course his library was much larger than anything else remotely close to him).
The library of Leonard is also well known--over the years via my bookstore I've had a number of people (usually involved in a classical study program, or St. John's folks, etc) looking to try to reproduce Leonardo's library. In general, though, the full classification of the library of working scientists is not in general a known thing. (An interesting tour of some of the 116 books that comprise the library as described in the Codex Atlanticus and written around 1509 [left]. can be found at Museo Galileo, here.)
This is the main reason why my interest was piqued when I read this biographical treatment of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) in the 27 October 1881 issue of Nature magazine. It mentions the while the great Maxwell was not-yet-great, studying at the University of Edinburgh (which he attended from 1847-1850, when he was just sixteen), that he used the library there extensive, and that the library has "records" of that reading. The article quotes P.G.Tait from an 1879 article in that same journal (Nature, volume XXI, p 317) that during the years at Edinburgh "without keeping the regular course for a degree", Maxwell "carried home for study..such books as Fourier's Theorie de la Chaleur, Monge's Geometrque Descriptive, Newton's Optiks, Willis' Principles of Mechanisms, Cauchy's Calcul Differentiel, Taylor's Scientific Memoirs, and others of a very high order. These were read through, not merely consulted."
I'd like to see the whole list, though as yet I've not been able to find it, and I've not yet been able to find the right person to speak with at Edinburgh to determine whether there is a full list of Maxwell's borrowing habits, or not. It would be an interesting thing to see. After all, the man did basically invent modern physics, and it was his portrait among the very few that were displayed in Einstein's house at 112 Mercer Street.
The original article on Maxwell along with a very fine steel engraved portrait is offered for sale in our blog bookstore, here.]
JF Ptak Science Books [Quick Post in the History of Linesseries]
"That was when I saw the Pendulum. The sphere, hanging from a long wire set into the ceiling of the choir, swayed back and forth with isochronal majesty.. .The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane's dimensions, the triadic beginning ofn, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself... Were its tip to graze, as it had in the past, a layer of damp sand spread on the floor of the choir, each swing would make a light furrow..."--Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.
I've uploaded an interesting recrod to the books for sale section of this blog on the great experiment of Leon Foucault (1819-1868), who was the first to actually demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, doing so with a very simple, extraordinarily elegant experiment involving a heavy brass bob suspended from a long cable--a pendulum that was unencumbered and free to swing along any plane. It is the curvature of the Earth that allows the tip of the bob to make its pattern, and it is the fact that the Earth is rotating under the moving pendulum that allows it to be tracing this path at all--it is also tells the difference between living on a sphere and living on a plane.
(I wrote this post two years ago in the bookstore section of this blog but never put it in the blog. Here's an addition to the Howard material in a new listing in the bookstore section.)
It is odd to think among the great classifiers of nature, including even the lofty-namer Aristotle, that clouds were not scientifically classified until the early 19th century. Here they are, just about the biggest thing we have as earthlings that are gigantic and close to us, and nobody offered a good classifications scheme until 200-odd years ago—a pretty slim margin of time in the terms of recorded human history.
Clouds are of course problematic, what with floating around and all—but if you didn’t already know the relative newness of their recognizable names isn’t it shocking to learn this bit of history? For the most part I think clouds must have been thought as being too transient, changeable, whimsical, wispy, to be given proper names. The great scientist and classifier Lamarck tried to do so in his Annuaire Méteorologique of 1802, and really is the first to try this, but his ideas weren’t terribly good (especially compared to the rest of his work), and it seems as though he left his best thinking effort on clouds at home. For example, he gave us Hazy, dappled, massed, broom-like and grouped clouds as classifications (in French, respectively, en forme de voile, pommelés, attroupés, en balayeurs and groupés). They seem quite “French” to me, but largely outside the scope of being useful.
It was the English pharmacist and chemist Luke Howard who in 1803 gave a greater bit of thought to structuring cloud names, classifying them according to size and shape and giving them Latin names—and this forms the basis of our naming clouds to this day. Howard was perhaps the first, greatest, meteorologist, producing On the Modification of Clouds, (in which he describes his naming system, the “modification” part actually meaning classifying rather than changing), The Climate of London, and the first textbook on weather, Seven Lectures on Meteorology. Howard’s system was expanded in 1887 by Abercromby and Hildebrandsson, who further classified clouds by height above ground as well as by appearance (and utilizing Howard’s naming system).
Here (below) are two fine, early examples of cloud-naming for the scientifically-minded of the British elite, finding their way into print in the fabulous, ingenious and mammoth (45-volume) Cyclopædia, or The New Cyclopaedia, or, Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences, edited by Abraham Rees (1743-1825). The work was published between 1802 and 1820, and was the resulting effort of 100 contributors who generally wrote monograph-length entries, contributing to a final tally of close to 40 million words. I’ve particularly enjoyed the illustrations like those below—some of which have become iconic—and especially the fine and deep engraving of Wilson Lowry.
Howard began his system by identifying three basic shapes to clouds: heaps, layers, and curls. Heaps of separated cloud masses with flat bottoms and bulbous, splayed, tops, which he called cumulus, which is Latin for heap; the Latin stratus was applied to clouds in layers which were much wider than they were thick; and again to Latin for cirrus, which called out the wispy curls of clouds. (Rain clouds were given the Latin nimbus, for rain, and so on.)
It is interesting and romantic to think of Howard being moved in his love of clouds as many Brits and Europeans were in the Volcanic Year of 1783 by the enormous eruptions of the Eldeyjar (Iceland) and Asama Yama (Japan) volcanoes—the force of their eruptions caused enormous changes in the skies (especially in Europe), creating vast sky-borne tapestries (the “Great Fogg” in England) and for such extended periods of time that it would have been impossible for the scientifically-minded Howard not to see them.
Similar, in a way, to clouds is the snow crystal (snowflake)—they change forms in their lives from sky to ground, and may well disappear on contact with a warm surface. Of course unlike clouds they may fall and be captured, kept even, though the ability to actually perform some sort of scientific something with them didn’t occur until 400 years ago, which means that snowflakes passed in and out of human existence being very simply named (in most languages) as a mass group, and not classified at all.
Johannes Kepler thought very deeply in In 1611 publishing a short treatise called On the Six-Cornered Snowflake, thinking that perhaps their (mistaken) six-cornered symmetry revealed something much deeper about the basis of nature and the universe. The 26-year-old Robert Hooke seems to be recognized as the first to throw the snowflake under a microscope, publishing drawings of them and just about everything else that he saw in his monumental (and tall, being 13-inches tall) Micrographia (1665)--the first truly scientific book of modern times. The largest of the large images was saved for the flea, showing the unsuspecting public the great and beautiful nature of what seemed like a fantastical beast (under magnification). Snowflakes appeared in the book, revealed in their intricate and seemingly-symmetrical nature. Fantastic, unimagined images. This aside, he seems to have, um, borrowed these images from an earlier work, Thomas Bartholin's De Nivus usu Medico Observationes Varieae, 1661. But so it goes.
The Galileo of the snowflake was Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), an autodidact Vermont farmer, seen by fellow hamlet-dwellers as odd and off, who figured out how to photographically and beautifully record the intricacies of the snow crystal world—no one had ever done this so dramatically, with such gorgeous results. It really was as though he was able to record the heights of the mountains of the moon with a slender telescope in Pisa, 350 years earlier. The results of his decades of experience were published in 1931 his book Snow Crystals, containing more than 2400 snow crystal images. On the heals of Bentley’s accomplishments came the classically trained nuclear physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who was truly the first person to apply a scientific classification to snowflakes, and who published his intrepidly-beautiful work in a 1954 book entitled Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial. His classification system of the various types of snowflakes would prove vastly more useful, interesting and appealing than that published by the 1951 the International Commission on Snow and Ice, and forms the basis of the discussion of snow crystals today—a classification system of a massively-occurring phenomenon that is younger than me.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1690 [Part of the History of Dots series: Weighing Earth's Biggest Dot--Itself.]
Archimedes said that given certain conditions and equipment that he could lift the Earth with a lever; he did not, however, have the necessaries to actually determine how much the whole thing "weighed", and would have to wait for 20 centuries in the work of Henry Cavendish to have an answer. (Archimedes was a very busy man with an enormous list of contributions, and was perhaps the greatest physicist and mathematician of his age in the third century BCE, but he did not invent the lever--he did however provide the mathematical understanding and formalization of how the thing worked in his "On the Equilibrium of Plane Figures".)
In this experiment, "Experiments to determine the Density of the Earth", the results of which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 17981, the great and somewhat mysterious (and odd) Henry Cavendish determined to, of all things, weigh the Earth. (Well, really it was measuring the force of gravity and finding the gravitation constant G, which Cavendish referred to as the specific weight of the Earth.) Now there are certain remarkable things to be achieved in the 18th century (like for example the discovery of oxygen by Scheele/Priestly), and of course the idea of measuring the weight of the Earth was a high intellectual achievement. Cavendish set off to measure the force of attraction between large and small lead balls using as a basis for research parts of his dead friend John Michell's designs for a torsion balance (which he had created in 1783), and using of course Newton's laws showing that the force of gravity between two objects depends on their masses as well as the distance between them. Michell had thought of the experiment years before but died before he could present; Cavendish carried on and up, and out. Mind he wasn't the first on the spot (Coloumb was there too slightly before Michell), or the first with the idea--he was the first to complete it, though, taking the difference in the measures on the very sensitive balance from a distance using a telescope so as to not disturb the readings. As a matter of fact this was the only method employed to conduct this experiment for nearly another hundred years, the results being confirmed by a number of scientists2 over the coming decades. It was a lovely idea, and a fantastic piece of work.
In his paper in the Philosophical Transactions, Cavendish described Michell and the instrumentation int he opening two paragraphs:
This is the test apparatus that Cavendish constructed following the original Michell plans--it was a big, solid instrument, as that horizontal piece suspended fro the rod (K) is six feet long, and those two spheres (W) attached to its ends are 350-pounds apiece. The smaller sphere is located in the box to the side of the large sphere, as so:
“Henry Cavendish had fitful habits of publication that did not at all reveal the universal scope of his natural philosophy. He wrote no books and fewer than twenty articles in a career of nearly fifty years. Only one major paper was theoretical, a study of electricity in 1771; the remainder of his major papers were carefully delimited experimental inquiries, the most important of which were those on pneumatic chemistry in 1766 and 1783–1788, on freezing temperatures in 1783–1788, and on the density of the earth in 1798.” (D.S.B. III:155).
1. A copy of the first German edition of this work is available at our blog's bookstore: "Versuche über die Dichtigkeit der Erde zu Bestimmen." Halle, Rengerschen Buchhandlung, 1799, and published in Annalen der Physik, herausgegeben von Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert, band. 2, erstes stück. 120pp in this section, 488pp overall in in the entire volume, with 9 plates. Cavendish's paper occupies pp 1-62, with two plates (the torsion balance of Michell shown on the plates).
The entire Cavendish paper can be found here: Cavendish, Henry (1798). "Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth". In MacKenzie, A. S.. Scientific Memoirs Vol.9: The Laws of Gravitation. American Book Co.. 1900. pp. 59–105 Online copy of Cavendish's 1798 paper, and other early measurements of gravitational constant.
2. The experiment was in fact repeated numerous times, including that by Reich (1838), Baily (1843), Cornu & Baille (1878), among others, and it wasn't until 1895--the year of Roentgen's epochal discovery--that Cavenidsh's accuracy was exceeded by the work of C.V. Boys.
"it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element."--Ida Noddack, 1934
Sometimes events and conspire to almost come together, to be very-nearly-there but not so, just this shy of complete, just a little short of being whole--save for inspiration, or insight, or genius. Such I think is the case of Ida Noddack (and just about everyone else) in the non-discovery of fission in 1934.
Just for the record, fission is properly discovered by Hahn/Strassmann/Meitner and announced in Naturwissenschaften beginning in 1935 (with "Ueber die kuensrtliche Umwandlunbg des Urans durch Neutronen" in 1935 and culminating in the epochal papers of 1939)--and this the result of a long series of necessary discoveries made by Becquerel, Einstein, Curie, Joliot, Bohr, Chadwick, Compton, Fermi, Frisch, Rosbaud, Wheeler, Alvarez and others.
Noddack published her paper--"Uber das Element 93" in Angewandte Chemie (vol 47, pp 653-655) in 1934 (and published in Berlin) which correctly pointed out errors in Fermi's important two-page 1934 paper on neutron bombardment experiments "Possible Production of Elements of Atomic Number Higher than 92", published in Nature 133 (3372), pp 898-899. She identified as inconclusive Fermi's identification of transuranic products of neutron bombardment, and stated that the presence of all of the lower elements needed to eliminated along with the heavy radioactive elements. Noddack (1896-1978) was nominated three times for the Nobel (chemistry) but was passed by--she received recognition for her work, of course, but at the time- (1934) her paper was generally ignored, as it ran counter to some of the basic ideas of physics Noddack didn't offer any theoretical help in her observations, and the paper slid almost instantly into obscurity. The breakthrough work on this issue would begin int he next year and ultimately the unthought-of concept of fission would be announced five years later.
Here's an interesting lead sentence I found in 3QuarksDaily via Salon:
"Karl Marx did not know what we know: he did not know that he was Karl Marx."
The author suggested that Marx would've had a better time in his life had he known what influence he wielded in what he was writing--basically, Karl Marx didn't know that he was KARL MARX. It is an interesting--and frightening--idea to think of someone laboring like that laboring (as it were) away in relative obscurity, or at least relative to the monumental influence it would come to have.
The real question is not how many people might be in this category of not knowing who we know them to be, but if everyone is in this category at one point or another, and how long it took for them to understand the lasting significance of their work. But for right now I'm interested to know what people think of the following ten science personalities, and to answer (in a simple survey), if they knew the significance of their work.
The survey is simple and fairly straightforward, and asks questions regarding Copernicus, Harvey, Galileo, Einstein, Maxwell, Newton, Turing, Darwin, Lucretius and John Von Neumann.
You'll have a chance to view the survey results at the end. Thanks!
If you give them a chance, physics and the maths will provide their own fairy tales.
This lovely trompe l'oeil of Euclid calls into play the play of love, in hard angles and parabolas, between Mr. Punch of Punch or the London Charivari and the object of his affection. The image was published on 8 November 1879--just three days after the death of one of the greatest line-makers of the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell. (There is no mention of JCM anywhere in Punch, and I guess probably that there needn't be, even if he was one of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth (or any other) century.)
"XIIITH BOOK OF EUCLID.—PROPOSITION 1. THEOREM.
If two Players on two sides of a Parallelogram are equal to each other, each to each, and have likewise the hearts contained by those two side» equal to each other, and shall likewise have all advantages equal, and their faulty shall coincide, then shall they be equal each to each, viz., a love-match, which may or may not be absurd."
Maxwell's really big lines come in a series of four papers called "On the Lines of Force"1, and were published in 1861 and 1862. It is in these papers that Maxwell's famous equations are all found, and it is also the place where we'll find the basis not only for the foundation of classical electrodynamics, but the forms for the structure of what would become the epochal/modern communication/electrical technologies.
Maxwell's Demon came into being as a gedankenexperiment in a series of letters--it was Maxwell not only playing devil's advocate in trying to propose a circumstance in which the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics could be violated, but also providing the Demon, in the experiment, which he proposed as being a finite being, the contradictor. JCM didn't actually name this thing on his own--that appelation came via William Thomson in an article in Nature magazine3 in 1874.
We'll continue this later with Faraday's lines of force.
1. The articles appear in four parts in the Philosophical Magazine in 1861 and 1862 (full text via links):
2. Maxwell stated it so: "... if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics...."
3. William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), "Kinetic Theory of the Dissipation of Energy," Nature, 9 April 1874, pp. 441-444, and "The Sorting Demon Of Maxwell" (1879), Proceedings of the Royal Institution, vol. ix, p. 113.
Jean Schwartz (b. 1878) , composed this number for his (with the collaboration of William Jerome) Broadway (hit!) musical comedy Piff! Paff! Poof! in 1904, which sounded like this.
But the real story--that we'll deal with later--occurs a few years earlier, in 1898, with a married couple of scientists who made an epochal discovery:
What was easier for folks to understand was the application of the discovery, just six years after the Curie effort--though it did take a little longer to take hold in the public creative imagination than, say, the discovery of the X-ray, which entered the public mind almost instantly following its discovery in 1895.
Perhaps the real Radium Dance occurred for the first time by the people who found the thing, radium, back there in 1898--Marie Sklodowska Curie and Pierre Curie. They were a happily married couple, beginning their joined life in 1895, vacationing on wedding present money on bikes through the French countryside. They were soon back to their primary love in physics and chemistry, and inspired by the work of Henri Becquerel, began their assault on radioactivity in the next year. After several years of effort and laboriously extracting a gram of pure radium (by 1902) from a ton of pitchblende, they published their efforts in the volume of the great French scientific journal, Comptes rendus...Academie des Sciences (volume 127, in three short articles), announcing their discovery of polonium (after Marie's country of origin) and radium.
The really big Radium Dance would occur the year before the Broadway hit, in 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics1.
1. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 was divided, one half awarded to Antoine Henri Becquerel "in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity",the other half jointly to Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, née Sklodowska "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel".
One of the real pleasures of being a bookseller is the discovery of the unexpected source--in this case it was a small group of papers that at one time belonged to David Katcher, who--among many other things--was the first editor of the American Institute of Physics' magazine, Physics Today. It was started in 1948 to help bridge the gap between good science writ bad and hard science writ even worse for the world of the general reader. These are a few of the fragments from the editor's desk, as Katcher was organizing his thoughts about what the magazine would be about, who would write for it, and how the ideas would be presented.
For example, this worksheet for the first issues of the magazine outlined articles by some of the heaviest names in physics, with "something" by Bush, Conant, Oppenheimer; as well as who would be the target audience ("all"); and who the contributors would be ('big name"). Quite a different world and pace, then, and one in which a forceful man like Katcher could do a lot in, and quickly.
Then there's this interesting page of notes of a conversation between Katcher and the great I.I. Rabi, who offered some suggestions and insights about what might appear in the new magazine:
And this, Katcher's very clear statement on editorial policy (for 28 July 1948):
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1578 [Part of this blog's History of Lines series}
The post dedicated to Patti Digh, brilliant writer and birthday girl, who wrote a lovely, image-filled essay on Desire Lines back in December 2005 on her award-winning blog, 37days. I think the idea of Desire Lines is one of her favorites, and so I tried to imagine my own in her honor, a small Festschrift for the birthday girl. Happy Birthday, P.D.!
William Blake had a hard time of things, what with being thought of in unflattering terms of crazy vs. insane by many people rather than, say, being though of as "creative". He led a good and relatively long life (1757-1827), and by his artistic and poetic creations inspired generations of other creatives, though he was very little recognized during his lifetime. He was a seeker, and was somehow able to do his art and printmaking and poetry without a substantial income, living mostly on adequate income and patrons, slowly advancing to semi-poverty as he aged , but dying without a debt to his name.
The "line" that I site above to his unusual work, The Gates of Paradise--not the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti--, was actually a ladder and a collection of lines, but with the application of perspective becomes one combined line quicker and longer than it could ever be a ladder. Blake's character, as with Blake himself, wants whatever it is that he can have, conceivable or not; and som, if he wants the Moon, he just goes to get it. This version of The Gates of Paradise, which is largely a story of pictures and a few words as legend, was intended for children, perhaps--or at least that's what the title says. In any event, its an interesting message to send to children whether it was actually intended for children of the chronological age, or not. The "I Want, I Want" legend really wasn't necessary, as the image stands on its own.
Blake liked to tell a story with lines like this, as we see in this famous image of Newton:
Blake was an impossible anti-Newtonian--at least in my limited reading of the man--making a career of being a spectacular and beautiful anti-rationalist, a weaver of smoke, playing with and distorting images like a theramin player of words, using language to produce dichotomies in even the most standard of sensate ideas. Blake was the poster child for thing anti-tech, an anti-scientist out to save the world from its scientific self, the rationalist world set to destroy imagination, the “Antichrist science” hell bent on destroying the soul of art and religion.
“Art is the tree of life; Science is the tree of death” wrote Blake, and so he chose the “Athesistic” Sir Isaac to stand for the beast, depicting him in art as a naked geometer intent on subjugating the world with a compass and a keen brain, reducing glory to quantification, the work of Satan.. For most of my life I thought that this image by Blake was celebrating Newton—I knew little of the poet/artist/poet, and thought the painting a reverence. When I understood Blake a little, I saw that the image was intended as a mockery of Newton and the idea of science—this was an unusual sensation, because absent the unspoken intention of the artist, you could still take the subject matter of the artwork two ways.
And of course the Creator:
God is presented as the Great Geometer, the creative power of the universe issuing forth with compass/dividers, was perhaps a kind of Greek conception of the rule of the universe and its interaction with all things on Earth.
But it is interesting that in the end, Blake displays the sublime reasoning powers of Heaven and Earth, in the forms of God and Newton, both with desire lines. I think he enjoyed doing that.