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  • feedwordpress 08:01:31 on 2018/06/22 Permalink
    Tags: , , , energy efficiency, , , Rosenfeld, Science,   

    “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”*… 

     

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    More than 40 percent of the global population, more than 2 billion people, have a dust problem. Not “dust” meaning the grey puffs under the couch, but the dust of the Dust Bowl: microscopic soil particles, less than 0.05 millimeters across, so small that they get hoisted up into the wind and end up in people’s lungs.

    We know that large amounts of dust are linked to premature death. However, climate change is expected to make the problem much worse in the next century, and scientists still don’t know how much. In the next century, the lethal range of dust is expected to proliferate. Between now and 2050, the many as 4 billion people, half the world’s population, are expected to live in drylands. It’s not because people are migrating there. Drylands are growing because of (you guessed it) climate change

    Dust is known to cause premature deaths, but climate change’s effect on how bad our dust problems will get remains notoriously understudied: “A global Dust Bowl is coming.”

    * T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

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    As we do our best to go green, we might send grateful birthday greetings to Arthur Hinton “Art” Rosenfeld; he was born on this date in 1926.  A physicist at U.C Berkeley, he was moved by the oil embargo of 1973 to turn his attention to energy conservation, founding and leading the Center for Building Science at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Over the next 37 years he developed new standards which helped improve energy efficiency in California and subsequently worldwide.  His work helped lead to such breakthroughs as low-energy electric lights, such as compact fluorescent lamps, low-energy refrigerators, and windows that trap heat.  In his fight against global warming, he saved Americans billions of dollars in electricity bills– and earned the nickname, “godfather of energy efficiency.”

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    Rosenfeld receiving the 2011 Medal for Technology and Innovation from President Obama

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  • feedwordpress 08:10:10 on 2018/06/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Science, , ,   

    “The city’s full of people who you just see around”*… 

     

    An archaeologist’s reconstruction of Dvin, one of the most ancient settlements of the Armenian Highland and an ancient capital of Armenia [source], and modern day New York City [source]

    Much of the history of the city—its built forms and its politics, the urban experience, and the characteristic moral ambivalence that cities arouse—can be written as a tension between the visible and the invisible. What and who gets seen? By whom? Who interprets the city’s meaning? What should remain unseen?

    Rulers of cities have always had an interest in visibility, both in representing their power and in controlling people by seeing them. The earliest cities emerged out of the symbiosis of religion and political power, and the temple and the citadel gave early urbanism its most visible elements…

    Warren Breckman‘s  fascinating history of the city as a place to see and be seen: “A Matter of Optics.”

    * Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

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    As we wonder, with Juvenal (and Alan Moore), who watches the watchmen, we might recall that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar, but one of their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who may have been a wastrel, but was no fool– used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution.  (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

    In fact, (other) French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before; but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

    The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:22 on 2018/06/11 Permalink
    Tags: , camera obscura, Doctor Mirabilis, , , , , Science, scientific method,   

    “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”*… 

     

    A New Orleans levee, lit from above [source]

    400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day…

    * Martin Luther King, Jr.

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    As we remove our sunglasses, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

    He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

    Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:51 on 2018/06/09 Permalink
    Tags: , experiment, Ford's Theater, freezer, , , Science, Toaster,   

    “But the toaster was quite satisfied with itself, thank you”*… 

     

    Would a toaster still work in a freezer?  —My Brother, My Brother and MeEpisode 343, discussing a Yahoo Answers question

    On a recent episode of Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy’s terrific advice podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me, the brothers pondered a Yahoo Answers question about what would happen if you put a toaster inside a freezer. (The discussion comes around the 36-minute mark.)

    They have a fun discussion of a few aspects of the problem before eventually moving on to the next question. Since they don’t really settle on a final answer, I thought we could help them out by taking a closer look at the physics of freezer toasters.

    (A quick safety note: If you actually do this, keep in mind that the toaster may melt some of the ice in the freezer, leaving you with a running electrical appliance in a pool of water.)…

    Another in Randall Munroe’s marvelous What If? series: “Toaster vs. Freezer.”

    * Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster

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    As we cultivate curiosity, we might recall that President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only person to die in Ford’s Theater: it was on this date in 1893 that three interior floors of the building collapsed.  Ford had acquired his venue from a failed baptist Church; but shortly after its conversion, it burned to the ground.  Ford hastily rebuilt, and began to program performances like Our American Cousin, which featured the  famous actor– and assassin– John Wilkes Booth.

    Following Lincoln’s death, the United States Government appropriated the theatre, (Congress payed Ford $88,000 in compensation), and an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.  In 1866, the theatre was taken over by the U.S. military… then in 1893, the front of the building gave way, killing 22 military clerks and injuring another 68… which led some to conclude that the former Church-turned-theater was cursed.  (A restored Ford’s Theater opened in 1968.)

    Bodies being removed from Ford’s Theatre following the building’s collapse

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:00 on 2018/06/02 Permalink
    Tags: , , Edmond Halley, , , , , Science,   

    “South America must have lain alongside Africa and formed a unified block which was split in two in the Cretaceous; the two parts must then have become increasingly separated over a period of millions of years like pieces of a cracked ice floe in water”*… 

    Earth, 600 million years ago. The Ediacaran Period; life is evolving in the sea, and multicellular life is just beginning to emerge.

    From the good folks who brought you Dinosaur Pictures, a chance to watch continental drift at work– a marvelous interactive model of the earth that you can view from the present to 600 million years ago: Ancient Earth.

    * Arthur Wegener

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    As we marvel at the evolving reality of nature, we might marvel as well at the laws that govern it: it was on this date in 1686, the publication of Newton’s Principia (the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicawas arranged in London at the Royal Society. The minutes of the meeting record that the astronomer Edmond Halley would “undertake the business of looking after it and printing it at his own charge.”

    Title page of the first edition

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:03 on 2018/05/28 Permalink
    Tags: abolition, , , , Science, Sojourner Truth, , ,   

    “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”*… 

     

    A Victorian-era mathematical genius, [Ada] Lovelace was the first to describe how computing machines could solve math problems, write new forms of music, and much more, if you gave them instructions in a language they could understand. Of course, over the ensuing 100-plus years, dudes have been lining up to push her out of the picture (more on that below).

    Lovelace is hardly the only woman to be erased from the history of her own work…

    From computer programming to nuclear fission to the paper bag machine, it’s time to stop erasing these women from their great works.  Mother Jones restores eight female creators from their undeserved obscurity: “Ladies Last: 8 Inventions by Women That Dudes Got Credit For.

    * Ann Richards

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    As we give credit where credit is due, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, that Sojourner Truth electrified the gathering with an extemporaneous talk that has come to known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

    Born (c. 1797) into slavery in New York, Belle Baumfree (as she was born) escaped with her daughter to freedom in 1826.  She went to court to recover her son in 1828, and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.  She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”– a hope that she expressed as a fervent abolitionist and champion of women’s rights.

    In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:56 on 2018/05/25 Permalink
    Tags: , alarm clock, Gemma Frisius, , , knocker-up, , , pea shooter, Science,   

    “When reality and your dreams collide, typically it’s just your alarm clock going off”*… 

     

    Mary Smith using peas as an alarm clock in London’s East End

    The modern worker rolls out of bed, groans, and turns off an alarm clock. But industrial-era British and Irish workers relied on a different method for rising each morning. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, a human alarm clock known as a “knocker-up” (knocker-upper) would trawl the streets and wake paying customers in time for work. Armed with sticks—or, in the case of Mary Smith, a pea shooter—they tapped on windows or blasted them with dried peas.

    During the Industrial Age, people toiled at unusual hours in mines or factories. They could have used alarm clocks—adjustable versions had been invented by the mid-19th century. But they were still relatively expensive items, and unreliable ones, at that.

    Whether they wielded rods or pea shooters, knocker-ups became familiar presences throughout the United Kingdom. Many of them were older, and woke people up professionally for many years—they often wouldn’t leave people’s houses until they were sure they were awake…

    More of this timely tale in “Remembering the ‘Knocker-Ups’ Hired to Wake Workers With Pea Shooters.”

    * Crystal Woods

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    As we sleep in, we might spare a thought for Regnier Gemma Frisius; he died on this date in 1555.  A physician, mathematician, cartographer, philosopher, and instrument maker, he created important globes, improved the mathematical instruments of his day, and applied mathematics in new ways to surveying and navigation.  Indeed, he was the first to explain how measurement of longitude could be made from elapsed time measurements with a portable timepiece– a technique late perfected by John Harrison (as chronicled in Dava Sobel’s Longitude).

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:27 on 2018/05/14 Permalink
    Tags: Athanasius Kircher, , , , Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis, Mundus Subterraneus, Northwest Passage, Science, , William Clark   

    “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”*… 

     

    Depiction of a Dragon featured in Mundus Subterraneus

    Just before Robert Hooke’s rightly famous microscopic observations of everything from the “Edges of Rasors” to “Vine mites” appeared in Micrographia in 1665, the insatiably curious and incredibly prolific Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher [see here] published what is in many ways a more spectacular work. Mundus Subterraneus  (Underground world), a two-volume tome of atlas-like dimensions, was intended to lay out “before the eyes of the curious reader all that is rare, exotic, and portentous contained in the fecund womb of Nature.” There is an “idea of the earthly sphere that exists in the divine mind,” Kircher proclaimed, and in this book, one of more than thirty on almost as many subjects that he published during his lifetime, he tried to prove that he had grasped it.

    As a French writer put it some years later, “it would take a whole journal to indicate everything remarkable in this work.” There were extended treatments on the spontaneous generation of living animals from non-living matter, the unethical means by which alchemists pretended to change base metals into gold, and the apparent tricks of nature we now recognize as fossils. The book included detailed charts of “secret” oceanic motions, or currents, among the first ever published. The author’s more or less correct explanation of how igneous rock is formed was also arguably the first in print. According to one modern scholar, Kircher “understood erosion,” and his entries “on the quality and use of sand” and his “investigations into the tending of fields” had their practical use.

    Mundus Subterraneus identified the location of the legendary lost island of Atlantis (something that modern science hasn’t been able to accomplish) as well as the source of the Nile: it started in the “Mountains of the Moon,” then ran northward through “Guix,” “Sorgola,” and “Alata” and on into “Bagamidi” before reaching Ethiopia and Egypt. Kircher offered a lengthy discussion of people who lived in caves (their societies and their economy). He reported on the remains of giants (also mainly cave dwellers) found in the ground. And he went into detail on the kinds of lower animals who belong to the lower world (including dragons).

    In short, Mundus Subterraneus covered almost every subject that might relate to the realm of earth, as well as many that wouldn’t seem to, such as the sun and “its special properties, by which it flows into the earthly world” and the “nature of the lunar body and its effects.” These correspondences and influences were nothing new, though perhaps only the always-inclusive Athanasius Kircher would choose to publish a series of moon maps in a book about the world below…

    Portrait of Kircher at age 53 from Mundus Subterraneus

    More on this extraordinary work– inspired in part by a subterranean adventure Kircher himself made into the bowl of Vesuvius– at John Glassie‘s “Athanasius, Underground“; browse the book at the Internet Archive.

    * Socrates

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    As we praise polymathy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that Corps of Discovery– better known today as the Lewis and Clark Expedition– left Camp Dubois, near Wood River, Illinois, commencing what would be a trek over two years on which they became the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States.

    President Thomas Jefferson had commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase (in 1803) to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent– a Northwest Passage– and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.

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    Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:50 on 2018/04/21 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Oliver R. Smoot, , R. B. Braithwaite, Science, , units of measurement,   

    “The heart of science is measurement”*… 

     

    In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot (future Chairman of the American National Standards Institute) repeatedly laid down on the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that some of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers could measure the entire length of the bridge in relation to his height. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, the bridge was found to be 364.4 “Smoots” long (plus or minus an εar). The prank quickly became the stuff of legend (to this day, graffiti on the bridge still divides it up into Smoot-based sections) until finally, in 2011, the word smoot was added to the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”…

    More exceedingly-specific units of measurement, and the stories behind them: “10 Ridiculously Precise Units of Measurement.”

    * Erik Brynjolfsson

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    As we quantify quantity, we might spare a thought for Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he died on this date in 1990.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

    It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:15 on 2018/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: , arms control, , David Teniers the Younger, , , nuclear arms, Science, Seaborg,   

    “Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find”*… 

     

    Alchemist Heating a Pot, by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690

    Alchemy is one of the most curious subjects in the history of science–it evokes both method and magic in popular imagination. Teniers brilliantly juxtaposes light and shadow in his paintings, leaving the viewer unsure just how illuminating alchemy really is.

    Alchemy was practiced in Europe as early as the 1300s and, by the seventeenth century, it had reached in zenith. It was a precursor to modern chemistry, and the methods and instruments that are historically tied to alchemy had a significant impact on the development of scientific tools. (As a historical note, in the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry were extremely fluid scientific practices; many contemporary historians of science opt to refer to the science as chymistry to connote the mutability of the two practices.)

    At its very core, alchemy focused on the notion of transmutation–the ability of one element to morph into another, especially the ability to turn elements into gold. (If Rumpelstiltskin had only been so lucky!) In order to understand elements on their most basic level—in order to extrapolate how to transmute one into another—alchemy focused its experimental efforts on the processes of distillation, sublimation, and crystallization and how they affected different materials. Exploring these processes, however, required sophisticated tools and technologies as well as scientific means and methods…

    Lydia Pine takes us “Inside the Alchemist’s Workshop.”

    * Fritz Leiber

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    As we go for the gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he was born on this date in 1912.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

    Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

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