Friday, August 31, 2012

The Still Unsolved Case of Jack the Ripper

'A Suspicious Character' 1888
source: Illustrated London News
On August 31, 1888, the mutilated body of Mary Ann Nichols was found in Whitechapel, London. Her death has been attributed to the notorious unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper, who is believed to have killed and mutilated five women in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888.

The name Jack the Ripper origins from a letter distributed in London's press. In it, an unknown person claimed to be the murderer, but until today it is not clear if the letter was written by the media to increase the people's interest in the cases. During the time of the murders, the killer was also called 'The Whitechapel Murderer' or 'Leather Apron'.

The murders took place between August 31st and November 9th in 1888, which was a difficult year for the city of London and its citizens. The Whitechapel area was way too overcrowded, the economy faced bad times and the area transferred into a tough living place filled with violence, crime, alcoholism, racism, and prostitution.

Mary Ann Nichols was the first woman supposedly murdered by the unknown serial killer. She was, like the other four operating as a prostitute. They all were mutilated in about the same way, organs were missing and many incisions were made all over the bodies. Due to the high crime rate of this area, many murders and robberies took place, but only these five women were linked to the case of Jack the Ripper. After the last killing of Mary Jane Kelly, Leather Apron suddenly stopped, and until today the reason is unknown. Experts assume, that he died himself or was imprisoned for a different reason. The investigation took many months, about 2,000 people were interviewed and several hundreds were checked, but the police stayed unsuccessful. The people, who witnessed the victims having contact to men on the dates of their killings delivered mixed images of the murderer. The descriptions varied from shabby to upper class and from long haired to bald. Many investigators claimed the murderer was a slaughterer, but this speculation was never proven true or false. Through the time of investigations, the people's fear increased and so they founded the 'Whitechapel Vigilance Commitee', a group of volunteers looking for suspects and accomplishing independent investigations, but also without success.

Jack the Ripper's media attention grew and by the end of 1888, the case was known world wide. The police was not willing to hand over their investigation efforts to the newspapers, which led to them making up important information on their own and increasing the sensation of the story, but also the citizen's fears. During the investigation, the police received numerous letters considering the case, only three of them became famous, but up to this day it is not clear whether the letters were written by the killer or in reality by journalists.

Even tough the killings took place 124 years ago, the myths continue and several movies and musicals take the cruel events into the field of entertainment. There are even guided tours through London's East End explaining every bit of the still unsolved case of Jack the Ripper.

At yovisto you might learn 'How to Profil a Killer' in the Lecture of Prof. Glen D. Wilson from Gresham College, who also refers to the Jack the Ripper case.

References and Further Reading:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the Mother of the Monster

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)
Only a few 19th century literary works have become an icon in today's popular culture. Among them are the detective story and its most prominent protagonist Sherlock Holmes as well as some of the gothic horror novels, primarely Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Born on August 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the second child of the feminist philosopher, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the first child of the philosopher, novelist, and journalist William Godwin. Unfortunately, her mother died of puerperal fever soon after Mary was born. Godwin was left alone to bring up Mary along with her older half-sister.

At age 15 as an almost grownup teenager, Mary's father described her as "singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible."

By 1814 Mary Godwin first met the radical poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had become estranged from his wife and was regularly visiting William Godwin, whom he had agreed to bail out of debt. Percy Shelley's radicalism, particularly his economic views, had alienated him from his wealthy aristocratic family. Therefore, he had difficulty gaining access to money until he inherited his estate. Mary and Percy began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft's grave in St Pancras Churchyard, and they fell in love. But to Mary's dismay, her father disapproved. On 28 July 1814, the couple secretly left for France, taking Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with them, but leaving Percy's pregnant wife behind. The three travelled to Paris, and then, by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot, through a France recently ravaged by war, to Switzerland, but lack of money forced the trio to turn back to England.

Having settled somehow their difficult situation, a second trip to Switzerland followed in 1816 that should become one of the most told episodes in the history of literature about the birth of a literary masterpiece. Mary, Percy, and Claire Clermont planned to spend the summer together with the poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her pregnant. Byron together with his young physician, John Polidori, rented the Villa Diodati, close to Lake Geneva at the village of Cologny. They spent their time writing, boating on the lake, and talking late into the night. "It proved a wet, ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house" Mary Shelley wrote in 1831. Their conversations turned to the experiments of the natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter, and to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life. Sitting around a log fire at Byron's villa, the company also amused themselves by reading gothic novels and ghost stories. Thus, Byron suggested that they each should write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterwards, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:
"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." from Mary Shelley's introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
She began writing and with Percy's encouragement the tale finally became a full-fledged novel. But it was a fruitful stay also for the other members of the party. Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this John Polidori created 'The Vampyre' (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, two legendary horror tales originated from this one circumstance.

Mary Shelley's novel and the famous character of Frankenstein's monster have influenced popular culture for at least 100 years. The work has inspired numerous films, television programs, video games and derivative works. Today, the character of the monster remains one of the most recognized icons in horror fiction. But anyway, if you haven't read Mary Shelleys novel by now, you should. It's definitively worth while!

At yovisto, you can listen to Prof. Anne K. Mellor in her lecture about 'Mothering Monsters: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein'.

References and further Reading:

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Invention of Financial Politics by Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)
Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1655
On August 29, 1619, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as Minister of Finances under the rule of Louis XIV., was born. Colbert's innovative financial politics was one of the basic pillars of French absolutism and was about to change the world into a modern economy.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert basically did not have any other chance than going into finances. His father and grandfather were active as merchants, which influenced him critically. Jean-Baptiste himself spent his early working years at a war office and as a troop inspector. At the age of 30, Colbert became the councillor of state. Three years later, he was recommended by Cardinal Mazarin, who hired him to administer the Cardinal's affairs while being gone. He made up a great reputation early when he suggested a tax reform, not hesitating to criticize other politicians. After the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Colbert could climb the ladder of success. He became the superintendent of buildings, followed by several promotions up to a point where he had powerful positions in every political section but the war department.

When the financial department was transformed into the royal council, Colbert took the lead due to his authoritarian personality. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was fighting against corruption, he did not hesitate to reveal the dishonesty of politicians in office. He was also very active in the field of taxes and the way they were collected. He stood for an equality of taxes throughout the social classes and the reduction of the higher class.

Colbert made many chances in the financial system, however, not all of them were as successful as he had wished. To support trade and economy, the government helped companies financially, they hired qualified employees from abroad and prohibited French workers to emigrate. Contrary to the council's believe, these efforts caused several disadvantages. The general consumption decreased and many improvements could not take place. Nevertheless he could help improving the many French provinces through building roads and canals as a support of trade and currency exchange.

However, Colbert was an important representative of the mercantilism and was able to chance the French economy enormously into the direction of a modern and less corrupt system. At yovisto you may enjoy the lecture 'Deficit, or How the French Invented Financial Politics' by Jacob Soll at Columbia University.

References and Further Reading

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Life and Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1787
On August 28, 1749 the great German author, philosopher, natural scientist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of five children, son of Catharina Elisabeth and Johann Caspar. He was educated by his father, who owned numerous art collections and more than 2000 books. To satisfy him, Goethe began studying law in Leipzig and meanwhile increased his interest in art and architecture. Adam Friedrich Oeser counts as one of his direct influences, he gave him drawing lessons and introduced him to the works of Joachim Winckelmann. At the age of 18, he was able to publish his first work, 'Annette', a collection of 19 poems dedicated to his girlfriend Anna Katharina Schönkopf. Due to a serious illness, he moved back to Frankfurt in the following year, started to focus on religion and during this period, his famous poems about the moon were written. In 1770 he continued his law studies in Strasbourg and earned his doctoral degree, but could never receive it due to the accusation of heresy in his dissertation.

Even though Goethe opened his own lawyer office, he composed the drama 'Götz von Berlichigen', which was seen as a revolution of the classicism and the foundation of a new era, the 'Storm and Drive'. This era is strongly influenced by Goethe, who published many works, such as 'The Sorrows of Young Werther', a very successful piece due to the recipient's possibility to identify themselves with the protagonist easily. 'Prometheus' was published in this period as well as 'Stella' or 'Clavigo', his first contemporary theater piece. It was also the era of Storm and Drive in which he published numerous poems, like 'Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht' from 1770.
(In German language)

Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht.
Seh ich nur einmal dein Gesicht,
Seh dir ins Auge nur einmal,
Frei wird mein Herz von aller Qual.
Gott weiß, wie mir so wohl geschicht!
Ob ich dich liebe, weiß ich nicht.
In the middle of the 1770's, Goethe began his political career, which influenced his literature. Also he started researching on natural sciences, he published works on color theory, which is now seen as his most important work and owned a great amount of minerals as well as rock samples. He was even head of the zoological and paleontological department at the Univerity of Jena and even today there are still samples in the Phyletic Museum left from this period.

In the 1780's, Goethe left Weimar for Italy and after coming back he finally quit his political duties to devote himself completely to poetry and natural sciences. In 1794 he got to know Friedrich Schiller, who counts as one of his greatest influences. They began working together and depict the main figures of the 'Weimar Classicism'. During these years he could publish the famous poem 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' or 'Roman Elegies'. But with the passing of Friedrich Schiller, the Weimar Classicism came to an end and Goethe then began focusing more on romantic or classical works. Goethe dedicated this later life primarily to literature and passed away in 1832 in Weimar.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has influenced society in a variety of aspects. He could make great contribution to the theory of colors (although he disapproved Isaac Newton violently) and in natural science in general. His remarkable efforts in writing have influenced philosophers like Schopenhauer or Hegel and were set to music by composers like Mozart or Mahler.

At Yovisto, you can enjoy a lecture by Prof. Dr. Albert Meier from the University of Kiel talking about the education novel, a popular genre in the 18th century. In detail he discusses 'Die Geschichte des Agathon' as well as 'Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre' (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) from 1795/96.
(In German Language)

References and Further Reading:

Monday, August 27, 2012

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel and the Secret of his Philosophy

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel
On August 27, 1770, German theological philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel was born, who is counted as the creator of German idealism. For many historians, Hegel is "perhaps the greatest of the German idealist philosophers." In 1847 the London Communist League including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used Hegel's theory of the dialectic to back up their economic theory of communism. Now, in the 21st century, Hegelian-Marxist thinking affects our entire social and political structure.

Hegel's father, Georg Ludwig, was Rentkammersekretär (secretary to the revenue office) at the court of Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg. His mother, Maria Magdalena Louisa (née Fromm), was the daughter of a lawyer at the High Court of Justice at the Württemberg court. When Hegel was eleven his mother died of a "bilious fever" (Gallenfieber) while he and his father who also caught the disease  narrowly survived. At the age of three Hegel went to the "German School". When he entered the "Latin School" aged five, he already knew the first declension, having been taught it by his mother. In 1776 Hegel entered Stuttgart's Gymnasium Illustre. During his adolescence Hegel read voraciously, copying lengthy extracts in his diary. Authors he read include the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and writers associated with the Enlightenment such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

1788 Hegel entered the Tübinger Stift (a Protestant seminary attached to the University of Tübingen), where two fellow students were to become vital to his development - the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the younger philosopher-to-be Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Sharing a dislike for what they regarded as the restrictive environment of the Seminary, the three became close friends and mutually influenced each other's ideas. They watched the unfolding of the French Revolution with shared enthusiasm. Schelling and Hölderlin immersed themselves in theoretical debates on Kantian philosophy, from which Hegel remained aloof.

During his career as a philosopher, Hegel published only four books: the Phenomenology of Spirit, his account of the evolution of consciousness from sense-perception to absolute knowledge, published in 1807; the Science of Logic, the logical and metaphysical core of his philosophy, published between 1811 and 1816; Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a summary of his entire philosophical system, published in 1816; and the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, his political philosophy, published in 1822.

The French Revolution for Hegel constituted the introduction of real individual political freedom into European societies for the first time in recorded history. But precisely because of its absolute novelty, it is also unlimited with regard to everything that preceded it: on the one hand the upsurge of violence required to carry out the revolution cannot cease to be itself, while on the other, it has already consumed its opponent. The revolution therefore has nowhere to turn but onto its own result: the hard-won freedom is consumed by a brutal Reign of Terror. History, however, progresses by learning from its mistakes: only after and precisely because of this experience can one posit the existence of a constitutional state of free citizens, embodying both the benevolent organizing power of rational government and the revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.

Actually, Hegel's philosophy in short was summarized by James Hutchinson Stirling in his 1865 published book 'The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin Principle, Form and Matter:
"The secret of Hegel may be indicated at shortest thus: As Aristotle - with considerable assistance from Plato—made explicit the abstract Universal that was implicit in Socrates, so Hegel - with less considerable assistance from Fichte and Schelling—made explicit the concrete Universal that was implicit in Kant."

At yovisto you might learn more about the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. As being a major focus of Prof. Robert Brandom's work, he makes Hegel's thought accessible to analytic philosophy by developing a semantic interpretation of the "Phenomenology of Spirit" in his Munich lectures.

References and further Reading:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Modern Chemistry started with Lavoisier

Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794)
Portrait together with his wife
by Jacques Luis David, 1788
It took centuries for the occult science of Alchemy to become the modern science of Chemistry. Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, born on August 26, 1743, is considered as one of the fathers of modern chemistry.

Born to a wealthy family in Paris, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier inherited a large fortune at the age of five with the passing of his mother. His education was filled with the ideals of the French Enlightenment of the time, while he was studying chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics. He was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and even obtained his license to practice law in 1764 before turning to a life of science.

In 1771, at the age of 28, Lavoisier married 13-year-old Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the daughter of a co-owner of the Ferme générale. Over time, she proved to be a scientific colleague to her husband, translating English documents for him, creating many sketches and carved engravings of the laboratory instruments used by Lavoisier and his colleagues, as well as editing and publishing Lavoisier’s memoirs later on.

Among the achievements of Lavoisier was the discovery of the role of oxygen in the rusting of metal, as well as oxygen's role in animal and plant respiration. Working with Pierre-Simon Laplace, Lavoisier conducted experiments that showed that respiration was essentially a slow combustion of organic material using inhaled oxygen. Lavoisier's explanation of combustion disproved the phlogiston theory, which postulated that materials released a substance called phlogiston when they burned. Lavoisier's researches included some of the first truly quantitative chemical experiments. He carefully weighed the reactants and products in a chemical reaction, which was a crucial step in the advancement of chemistry. He showed that, although matter can change its state in a chemical reaction, the total mass of matter is the same at the end as at the beginning of every chemical change. Thus, for instance, if a piece of wood is burned to ashes, the total mass remains unchanged. Furthermore, he determined that the components of water were oxygen and hydrogen, and that air was a mixture of gases, primarily nitrogen and oxygen.

Meanwhile, Lavoisier also had become a very powerful figure in the unpopular Ferme Générale, i.e. 28 feudal tax collectors who were known to profit immensely by exploiting their position. He was branded a traitor under Robespierre, during the Reign of Terror following the French revolution in 1794. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May in Paris, at the age of 50. His importance to science was expressed by Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying:
"Cela leur a pris seulement un instant pour lui couper la tête, mais la France pourrait ne pas en produire une autre pareille en un siècle." ("It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century.")
At yovisto you can watch a panel discussion about 'Chemistry on Canvas - A Portrait of the Lavoisier Family' from the World Science Festival.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Galileo Galilei and his Telescope

Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice
how to use the telescope,
Fresco at Villa Andrea Ponti, Varese, 1858
On August 25, 1609, Galileo Galilei publicly demonstrated his newly built telescope for the first time to Venetian lawmakers. Besides its astronomical value Galileo's telescope was also a profitable sideline for him selling telescopes to merchants who found them useful both at sea and as items of trade. Galileo published his initial telescopic astronomical observations in March 1610 in a brief treatise entitled Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger).

Although as a young man considering a priesthood, Galileo enrolled at the University of Pisa to study medical science in 1581. But soon after, the story goes that he was fascinated by observing a swinging chandelier, when he noticed that no matter how far it was swinging, it always took the same time swinging back and forth. He repeated this experiments with two pendulums at home which confirmed his observation. To this point, he had deliberately been kept away from mathematics, but now he talked to his reluctant father to let him study mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1586, Galileo made his first publication on the design of a hydrostatic balance he had invented, which first brought him to the attention of the scholarly world and in 1589, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics in Pisa. A year later already, he moved to the University of Padua, teaching geometry, mechanics, and astronomy until 1610.

During his time in Padua, Galileo made significant discoveries in both pure fundamental science as well as practical applied science, as e.g. also his improvement of the improvement of the telescope. Based only on rather uncertain descriptions of the first practical telescope which Hans Lippershey tried to patent in the Netherlands in 1608, Galileo, in the following year, was able to build a telescope with about 3x magnification. He later succeded to improve the device significantly with up to about 30x magnification. With a Galilean telescope, the observer could see magnified, upright images on the earth—it was what is commonly known as a terrestrial telescope or a spyglass. For its design Galileo used a convergent (plano-convex) objective lens and a divergent (plano-concave) eyepiece lens. Because the design has no intermediary focus, the magnified picture results in an non inverted and upright image. Of course Galileo's telescope cannot be compared with today's standard in optical technology. Because of flaws in the shape of the lenses and the narrow field of view, the produced images were blurry and distorted. Nevertheless, despite these flaws, it was still good enough for Galileo to explore the nocturnal sky - which made Galileo's design for the time being the best telescope on the contemporary market.

In 1604, Galileo was able to observe Kepler's supernova. Since this new star displayed no detectable diurnal parallax, Galileo concluded that it was a distant star, and therefore disproved the Aristotelian belief in the immutability of the heavens. His public advocacy of this view met with strong opposition. On 7 January 1610, Galileo observed with his telescope what he described at the time as "three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness", all close to Jupiter, lying on a straight line with it. Subsequent observations showed that the positions of these "stars" relative to Jupiter were changing in a way that would have been inexplicable if they had really been fixed stars. Moreover, on 10 January, Galileo noted that one of them had disappeared, probably behind Jupiter. Thus, he concluded that the stars must be orbiting Jupiter, which have been later renamed the Galilean Moons in honour of their discoverer.

Galileo's observations of Jupiter moons caused a revolution in astronomy: a planet with smaller planets orbiting it did not conform to the Aristotelian cosmology, which held that all heavenly bodies should circle the Earth. Thus, many astronomers simply refused to believe Galileo's observation. In 1612, having determined the orbital periods of Jupiter's satellites, Galileo proposed that with sufficiently accurate knowledge of their orbits, one could use their positions as a universal clock, and this would make possible the determination of longitude. Two years earlier in 1610, Galileo observed that Venus exhibited a full set of phases similar to that of the Moon, thus confirming the predictions of Nicolaus Copernicus made on the foundation of his heliocentric model. Galileo also observed the planet Saturn, and at first mistook its rings for planets or moons. In later observations, Saturn's rings were directly oriented at Earth, causing him to think that the two planets next to Saturn must have disappeared. When they reappeared several years later, Galileo was even more confused. Galileo was one of the first Europeans to observe sunspots, although Kepler had unwittingly observed one in 1607, but mistook it for a transit of Mercury.

But Galileo's telescope was not only rather useful tool for astronomy. On 25 August 1609, he demonstrated one of his early telescopes, with a magnification of about 8 or 9, to Venetian lawmakers, who also were excited about it. In this way, Galileo was able to sell his telescopes as a profitable sideline of his business as a scientist. Merchants were his best customers, who found the telescopes rather useful both at sea as well as items of trade.

At yovisto, Prof. Catherine Crawford from Gresham College, London, explains you, why we (still) need large telescopes.

References and Further Reading:
Related Articles at Yovisto Blog:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges and the Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
On August 24, 1899, the famous Argentine writer and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, who is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, was born in Buenos Aires. He is considered to be one of the most important figure in Spanish-language literature since Cervantes. Most famous in the English speaking world for his short stories and fictive essays, Borges was also a poet, critic, translator and man of letters.

In 1914 Borges' family moved to Switzerland where he attended school, receiving his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918. During these years, the Borges family travelled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. One of the reasons, why Borges himself was fluent in several languages. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. With his vision beginning to fade in his early thirties and unable to support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer and a librarian. By the late 1950s, he had become completely blind. Nevertheless, in 1955 he was appointed director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first ever Prix International, sharing the award with Samuel Beckett. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe.

Borges' intellectually most challenging subject (as well as from the viewpoint of a computer scientist or mathematician) was his concept of the 'Library of Babel', where he describes a world, consisting of an endless library containing all possible books that can be written with all combinations of the 24 letters of the alphabet. All the countless books stand in shelfs ordered in hexagonal rooms one after the other in a 3-dimensional layout. Unfortunately, most of the books only contain crap, i.e. letters that don't make sens, simply because of all possible letter combinations only a few make sense and form a valid word. The librarians of this library are constantly looking for books with readable and sense-making content. And overall, because this library should contain every conceivable book, they foremost look for the one book that explains the meaning of the library and why it exists.... An incredible story you must read!

Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, something which continually distressed him. He was one of several distinguished authors who never received this honour. It is speculated that Borges did not receive the award because of his conservative political views. Borges commented
"Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me."
BTW, did you know that Borges was also the referred to by Umberto Eco in his novel 'The Name of the Rose', when he created the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos as the villain in his story?

At yovisto, you might watch a video lecture of Alberto Manguel, who was a secretary to Borges for many years, talking about 'Borges and the Impossibility of writing'.

References and further Reading:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The First Image from Abroad - Earth Rising and Lunar Orbiter 1

Crescent of the Earth, photographed August 23, 1966 at 16:35 GMT
by Lunar Orbiter 1
On August 23, 1966, the pace probe Lunar Orbiter 1 sent the very first images of the earth rising above the moon's surface back to earth.

Lunar Orbiter 1 was part of the Lunar Orbiter program started in the 1960's in preparation to the Apollo moon landing. The project consisted of five unmanned spacecrafts, equally built to take pictures of the moon. The purpose was to find a safe landing place for Apollo rather than taking pictures of the Earth. When Lunar Orbiter 1 was already sent to space, scientists debated whether or whether not to point the craft's camera at Earth due to the high risks that go along with it. The fact, that the United States were afraid of losing grip in the space race with the Soviet Union also made clear that no mistakes were acceptable. Still, NASA decided to take the chance and changed Lunar Orbiter 1's position. They were rewarded with remarkable pictures of the Earth-rise and Lunar Orbiter 5 was the first spacecraft to send pictures of the entire Earth in 1967, which were soon popular around the globe.

Since the Apollo program was soon to start, the Lunar Orbiter spacecrafts had to be built quickly. Luckily, the American Department of Defense had Boeing and Eastman Kodak construct a spacecraft carrying an onboard camera. According to Jay Friedlander, a photographic technician, the camera took up a third of the entire spacecraft and was equipped with dual lenses. One taking wide-angle images and the other telephoto lens taking high-resolution images of many details at the moon. This way 99 percent of the moon's surface could be covered with over 1654 images. NASA then printed out huge versions of some photographs to walk on top of them and find perfect landing places.

All five missions of the Lunar Orbiter program were successful and depicted great contributions to the success of the moon landing in 1969. Sadly, none of the Lunar Orbiter spacecrafts survived after their missions. NASA purposely destroyed them for two major reasons. First, the radio signals from the different orbiters should not interfere with each other and second, the program used technology from the Department of Defense. According to Dave Williams, a planetary curation scientist, the United States could not risk a revelation of their methods, especially because the Soviet Union was deploying lunar orbiters as well.

At yovisto you might watch a short documentary about the mission Lunar Orbiter 1 and how the first images of the Earth reached NASA.

References and Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury and his influential works

Cover of Planet Stories Magazine, November 1953
with a Science Fiction story by Ray Bradbury
On August 22, 1920, the American novelist Ray Bradbury, best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, was born. Ray Bradbury has won every achievable writing award including the National Medal of Arts in 2004 and the National Book Foundation Medal in 2000.

At young age, Ray Bradbury started his interest in writing, theater and acting. Since his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 14, Bradbury could sneak into places where the glamorous people from Hollywood spent their time. Concerning literature, his early influences were more shaped by Edgar Allan Poe or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Especially Burroughs' 'John Carter, Warlord of Mars' stayed in his memory, because he claims that this comic series was the reason why he began writing in the first place. Before moving to California, his family lived in Waukegan, Illinois where he spent much time in the local library reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, who later belonged to his major influences. During his school time, he continued writing and even though his teachers, who were aware of his great talent, wanted to support these interests, Bradbury never attended College.
"Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."
Ray Bradbury, 2009
Also it was a library were he wrote one of his most famous novels and one of the most influential dystopian novels of all times, 'Fahrenheit 451'. The creation of the book cost a total of $9.80 due to the rental fees of the typewriters in the library. This novel was sold more than 5 million times and even though it was published 60 years ago its alarming story is still highly relevant and therefore depicts an important piece read by high school students and adults all over the world.

'Fahrenheit 451' might have been his most successful novel, but 'The Martian Chronicles' was the first he could publish. Actually 'The Martian Chronicles' were not supposed to be a novel at first. Bradbury early discovered his love for short stories and wrote brilliant pieces like 'All Summer in Day' or 'The Flying Machine'. When he came to New York, trying to get some of his novels published, he was mostly rejected because the publishers were seeking for novels. His editor Walter Bradbury then suggested to combine his stories into an entire novel, which the publishers loved. The story discusses the human colonization of the planet Mars and their conflict with the native Martians. The book gained a great reputation and was adapted in movies, operas, and radio shows.

The fact that Ray Bradbury with his many published novels, and his numerous collections and short stories has shaped our society is undeniable. He was a great influence to Steven Spielberg, Steven King and the author Neil Gaiman, who tributed him after his passing in June and he was able to open the mind and its creativity of every one who read his works.

At yovisto you can watch Ray Bradbury himself in a video talking about his life and love of writing in "Telling the Truth," the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer`s Symposium by the Sea at San Diego University.

References and Further Reading

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Mona Lisa is Missing....!

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa
(ca. 1503-1505)
On August 21, 1911 during intensive repair and renovation work the Louvre Museum realized that Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was stolen.

I guess, the Mona Lisa must be the most famous painting in the world. The painting's title Mona Lisa stems from a description by Giorgio Vasari, who wrote biographies of famous contemporary Renaissance men: "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife....". Published almost 30 years after Leonardo's death, Vasari's biography is the first and most authentic provenance information about the painting. The woman portraied in the painting is referred to as Lisa del Giocondo, and was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 or 1504 in Florence, Italy. In 1516 he was invited by King François I to work at the Clos Lucé near the king's castle in Amboise. It is believed that he took the Mona Lisa with him and continued to work after he moved to France.After his death, the king bought the painting for 4,000 écus and kept it at Palace of Fontainebleau, where it remained until given to Louis XIV, who moved the painting to the Palace of Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre, but also spent a brief period in the bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.

The painting's fame was emphasized when it was stolen on 21 August 1911. The next day, Louis Béroud, a painter, walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. However, where the Mona Lisa should have stood, he only found four iron pegs. The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid in investigation of the theft. But it didn't help. The Mona Lisa had vanished and the painting was believed to be lost forever, and it was two years before the real thief was discovered.

Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen it by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed Leonardo's painting should be returned to Italy for display in an Italian museum. Peruggia may have also been motivated by a friend whose copies of the original would significantly rise in value after the painting's theft. After having kept the Mona Lisa in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and only served six months in jail for the crime.

At yovisto you might study Leonardo's Mona Lisa in a presentation of Jean Penicaut from Lumière at Google talking about high resolution photographs of classical art.

References and further Reading:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang Theory

Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (1915-2001)
© wikipedia
Sir Fred Hoyle, born in 1915 was a famous astronomer, mathematician, and author. The scientist was the first to coin the term "Big Bang" for the now prevailing theory of the early development of the universe in 1949, even though he happened to be a strong opponent of this theory.

Hoyle was born and grew up in England, he studied at Emmanuel College in Cambridge and later worked on radar research during World War II. Together with Hermann Bondi, a mathematician and cosmologist, and Thomas Gold, a well known astrophysicist, he researched on methods of finding out the altitude of enemy airplanes. Hoyle returned to Cambridge, started as a lecturer and mainly focused on astrophysics.

Hoyle was always convinced that the universe is indeed expanding, but the density of the matter is invariable, because of the homogenous development of new matter at all times. This theory is called 'Steady State' and was developed by Hoyle as well as his former colleagues Bondi and Gold. This theory was often compared with a flowing river, because even though the water molecules move away from each other, the river stays the way it is. The 'Steady State Theory' has been proven wrong at the latest with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which has been predicted by the scientists favoring the 'Big Bang Theory'. The term itself was established by Fred Hoyle himself. On BBC radio's third programme broadcast, Hoyle hosted a show about astronomy, in which he tried to explain the difference between the two leading theories and coined the term 'Big Bang'. The content of this popular show was published in his book 'The Nature of the Universe'.

In 1967 Fred Hoyle created the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, which later merged together with two other institutions to the Institute of Astronomy and depicts the largest astronomy department at Cambridge. Fred Hoyle then left Cambridge and began publishing science books that soon gained of high popularity, especially young people were amazed by his books due to them being very easy to understand. He also wrote science fiction books and was invited to numerous talks around the globe. To his most popular books belongs the science-fiction novel 'The Black Cloud' published in 1957. It discusses a huge black cloud moving towards the Earth, which causes panic. A group of scientists then tries communicating with the cloud to understand its purpose. Some scientific topics in the book are AI, as well as optical character recognition, which gain as much importance in the novel as the problems the scientists face with the government officials.

Fred Hoyle was a remarkable scientists, not fearing conflict which led to him being in many controversial positions during his career. He passed away on August 20, 2001 at the age of 86.

On yovisto you can learn more about the origin of the universe and the big bang theory from the lecture Origin of the Universe: The Big Bang of Christopher D. Impey at the University of Arizona.

References and Further Reading:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eureka! - California and the 1848 Gold Rush

Seeking gold in the California river
Source: Harper's Weekly magazine
On August 19, 1848, the the New York Herald, a major newspaper of the American East Coast printed the exciting news that gold has been found on the West Coast, which caused thousands of immigrants from all over the world to travel to California hoping to to find wealth and glory.

The story began some months earlier, in January 1848. James Marshall constructed a saw mill for the pioneer John Sutter at the American River and discovered the first gold. Unfortunately nobody believed in the articles the San Francisco newspapers published about these findings until May of the same year when a storekeeper ran around the city with a bottle full of gold dust proving the rumors right. The big immigrant wave arrived after the New York Herald published its article and many people around the country left their jobs and families to search for gold.

As easy as it sounds today traveling to California, in the middle of the 19th century it was not a walk in the park. Some traveled by sea which took several months. The most famous land route was the California Trail, a route of 3,200km across the western half of the United States. Either way, the travelers had to face fever, cholera, and often death. Still, most of them made it to San Francisco, which caused the city to grow from about 1,000 citizens up to 25,000 in between two years.

The big amount of 49-ers (as the gold seekers were called) caused many structural and political problems. First of all, the new citizens had to be supplied with food and it sometimes took too long for the merchant ships to arrive. Also many disagreements between Americans and foreigners began and resulted in cruel attacks from American prospectors against mainly the Mexican and Chinese workers. Soon, foreigners had to pay a ridiculously high tax to being able to seek for gold. Native Americans also faced bad times, they were pushed out of their hunting areas and starved to death, others were slaughtered and over the years more than 100,000 Native Americans were killed as a result of the Gold-Rush.

After a short time, the gold that could basically just be collected from the ground was gone and the 49-ers had to come up with new techniques that were more of hard work and also very pricy so that many had to receive loans from the bank or were forced to work together. These circumstances affected the life in the camps the gold diggers were living in were described by Mr. Shufelt, one of the many 49-ers:
"Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success & thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, & probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease and death."
The overall profit of the miners was rather modest in contrast to the many merchants settling in the new cities, one of them was the famous Levi Strauss selling denim overalls. The California Gold-Rush indeed stimulated the economy, let the cities grow fast and was the reason for several technical inventions as well as the construction of schools, roads and train routes.

At yovisto you can watch Angela Hawk from University of California, Irvine with her talk "Madness and Migration in Gold-Rush Era California and British Columbia: The Comparative Dimensions of Borderland Insanity" from the Bancroft Symposium, Session IV: The Borderlands: The Early Years, at UC Berkeley in 2010.

References and Further Reading:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How High/Low Can You Go? - The Explorer Auguste Piccard

Auguste Piccard (right) and his assistant Paul Kipfer
prepare to enter the Stratosphere (@wikipedia)
Scientists and explorers we boldly go where no man has gone before. If there is one scientist, who might serve as the prototype of an bold explorer, then we have to consider Auguste Piccard, a Swiss professor of physics, who tried to explore the deepest depths of the sea as well as the extreme stratosphere of the earth. And he did this not only in theory, but by experiment (always including his own person).

Born in 1884 in Basel, Switzerland, he graduated in engineering at the Polytechnikum Zürich in 1910. After world war I in 1917 he discovered a new Uran isotope Actinuran (today referred to as Uran 235). In 1922, Piccard was appointed professor of physics at the Polytechnic School of Brussels, where he tried first test flights of stratospheric free balloons. With the help of one of his balloon experiments he was able to give an experimental proof of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

In 1930, his curiosity about the upper atmosphere and his interest in ballooning led him to design a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola that would allow ascent to great altitude without requiring a pressure suit. On 27 May 1931, Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer took off from Augsburg, Germany, and reached a record altitude of 15,785 m. During this flight, Piccard was able to gather substantial data on the upper atmosphere, as well as measure cosmic rays. On 18 August 1932, launched from Dübendorf, Switzerland, Piccard and Max Cosyns made a second record-breaking ascent to 16,200 m . He ultimately made a total of twenty-seven balloon flights, setting a final record of 23,000 m (75,459 ft). By reaching the upper atmosphere, Auguste Piccard might also be referred toa s the very first astronaut.

In the mid-1930s, Piccard's interests shifted when he realized that a modification of his high altitude balloon cockpit would allow descent into the deep ocean. Following the same principle as his pressurized balloon gondola, in 1937 he constructed a deep sea diving vehicle, called the Bathyscaphe, a small steel gondola built to withstand great external pressure. Work started in 1937 but was interrupted by World War II. The deep-diving submarine finally was finished in 1948. It made a number of unmanned dives in 1948 before being given to the French Navy in 1950. Together with his son Jacques, Auguste Piccard undertook a redesign of the Bathyscape and in September 30, 1953 both set a dive record with 3150 meters depth at Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea. On 23 January 1960, Jacques Piccard together with US Navy Lt. Don Walsh reached the floor of the Mariana Trench located in the western North Pacific Ocean with the Bathyscape Trieste. The depth of the descent was measured at 10,916 meters (35,813 feet).

As a mater of fact there are several references of Prof. Auguste Piccard in popular media. He was the inspiration for Professor Cuthbert Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. And also the name of Start Trek - Next Generation Captain Jean-Luc Picard stems from Auguste Piccard.

Here, you can watch some rare footage from Italian Archive Cinematografico Luce of Auguste Piccard after the descend near the city of Desenzano of his record flight from 1932.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Robert Fulton and the Steamship Company

A replica of the Clermont, the first commercially
operating steamship constructed by Robert Fulton in 1807
From the invention of a new power source or engine up to a vehicle that applies this power source to move forward sometimes is only a small step. But, to become a commercial success, this step might take even decades. Just think of the oldest type of engine powered by steam. Although the principle of the steam engine was already described by ancient Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria, it took almost 17 centuries to become a practical device, as the steam-powered waterpump invented by Thomas Savery in 1698. Finally James Watt made the necessary improvements to the steam engine in the 1770s to become a major commercial success and also the power source for the just starting industrial revolution.

By that time, steam engines were rather huge. Thus, one of the first ideas to use them for any kind of vehicle was not an automobile, but for a ship. In France, already in 1774 Marquis Claude de Jouffroy had built a 13-metre working steamboat with rotating paddles, the Palmipède. In June and July1776, the ship sailed on the Doubs River, apparently the first steamship to sail successfully. But still, the commercial success failed, because the engine of the successor ship broke only 15 minutes after starting operation and bureaucracy thwarted further progress.

In the United States, the first successful trial run of a steamboat had been made by inventor John Fitch on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787. Fitch was granted a patent on August 26, 1791. But, unfortunately the newly created Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but a patent of the modern kind, for the new design of Fitch's steamboat. It also awarded patents alternative steamboat designs and the loss of a monopoly caused many of Fitch's investors to leave his company. While his boats were mechanically successful, Fitch failed to pay sufficient attention to construction and operating costs and was unable to justify the economic benefits of steam navigation. It was Robert Fulton who would turn Fitch's idea profitable decades later.

Robert Fulton was the first to operate steamboats commercially. Fulton may have become interested in steamboats at the age of 12 when he visited William Henry during a trip to Britain and France in 1777. He built and tested an experimental steamboat on the River Seine in 1803. Before returning to the United States, Fulton ordered a steam engine from Boulton and Watt, and on return built what he called the North River Steamboat (later known as Clermont). On August, 17, 1807, the Clermont began a regular passenger service between New York City and Albany, New York, 240 km distant, which was a commercial success. She could make the trip in 32 hours.

At yovisto you might learn more about the principles behind steam engines and thermodynamics in the lecture videos of Prof. Ranamurti Shankar from Yale on 'Fundamentals of Physics', where he also discusses the laws of thermodynamics.

References and further Reading: