Friday, November 30, 2012

Mark Twain - Keen Observer and Sharp-tongued Critic

Mark Twain (1835-1910),
by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907
On November 30, 1835, famous American author Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was born in the tiny village of Florida, Missouri. He is most noted for his humorous novels about the mischievous boys Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their adventures on the mighty Mississippi River.

His father John Clemens worked as a storekeeper, lawyer, judge, and land speculator, who sometimes only hardly could feed his family and was attributed never to be seen smiling. In 1839, the Clemens family moved 35 miles east to the crescent town of Hannibal, a growing port city on the banks of the Mississippi, a frequent stop for steam boats arriving from St. Louis and New Orleans. In his early years, Twain was a mischievous boy, the prototype of his character Tom Sawyer. Though he suffered from poor health and often wasn't allowed to leave the house, by age nine he had already learned to smoke, led a small band of pranksters, and had developed an aversion to school. Only aged 12, he lost his father by pneumonia and the Clemens family almost became destitute. Twain left school and became an apprentice in a printer's shop and later became an editorial assistant at the Hannibal Journal. It was here that young Samuel discovered the joy of writing.

At 17, he left for a printer's job in St. Louis, where he switched his intentions and started a career as a river pilot's apprentice. Clemens' pseudonym, Mark Twain, comes from his days as a river pilot, where it is a specific river term denoting 'two fathoms' or 4 meters, when the depth of water for a boat is being sounded. "Mark twain" means that is safe to navigate. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861‚ all traffic along the river came to a halt‚ and inspired by the times‚ Twain joined a volunteer Confederate unit‚ but quit again after just two weeks. In search for a well suited career, he traveled west to Nevada, where after failing as a silver prospector‚ he began writing for a Virginia City newspaper. This was, where he for the first time used his pen name‚ Mark Twain. In 1864‚ he headed for San Francisco where he continued to write for local papers. It was in 1865, when he had his very first success as a writer with his humorous short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". Now, he traveled throughout the entire country, meeting famous contemporaries Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens, and visited various countries in Europe, Hawaii, and the Holy Land.

In 1870 Twain married Olivia ‘Livy’ Langdon in Hartford, Connecticut, where in 1874 he built a home. Apart from numerous short stories during this time he wrote many of his classic novels, among them 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (1876), 'The Prince and the Pauper' (1881), 'Life on the Mississippi' (1883), 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' (1885) and 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' (1889). Twain was fascinated with science and scientific inquiry. He developed a close and lasting friendship with inventor Nikola Tesla and even patented three inventions himself, including an "Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments" (to replace suspenders). Although Twain made a substantial amount of money through his writing, he lost a great deal through investments, mostly in new inventions and technology. By 1895, he set off on a world lecture tour to Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, and South Africa to pay his debts off, during which he met Sigmund Freud and Booker T. Washington.
"When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman." (from 'Old Times on the Mississippi', 1875) 
On 21 April 1910, Mark Twain passed away in Redding, Connecticut.

At yovisto you may enjoy Dr. Mark Schenker at Yale University with his talk 'As Webster Is My Witness: Language, Lies, and Laughter in Mark Twain'



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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christian Doppler and the Doppler Effect

Christian Johann Doppler
(1803 - 1853)

On November 29, 1803, Christian Johann Doppler, Austrian Physicist and mathematician was born in Salzburg.

Doppler was born into a family of stonemasons, but due to his weak physical appearance, he was not able to continue in the family's business and was occupied mostly with a bookkeeping position. It was noticed, that he developed great talents in the field of mathematics wherefore he began his scientific career at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna. His first major papers were published in the 1830's and became Professor for mathematics and practical geometry at the Prague Polytechnic in 1841.

The presentation of his work 'Über das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne' (Concerning the colored light of the double stars) at a meeting of the Natural Sciences Section of the Royal Bohemian Society in Prague promised a break through for the young scientist. The paper depicted his first presentation of the famous Doppler Effect, relating a frequency of a source to its velocity relative to the observer. He explained, how a 'sound pitch from a moving object differs from an observer with a fixed position and that therefore the color of the light from a star should alter according to the star's velocity relative to Earth'. Doppler described that every 'star emitted white light and that the color of some stars was owing to their motion toward or away from us'. [1] This theory was later confirmed by a meteorologist, who used a locomotive carrying several horn players. He detected the predicted pitch of the notes as the players approached and hurried away. The Doppler Principle was applied in various fields beyond astronomy. In medicine it was used to detect cardiac motion and cardiac valves or to investigate the fetal blood flow just to give some examples.

Doppler became famous very fast due to his researches and found himself at the highest point of his career in 1850, when appointed as the first director the the Institute of Physics at the Imperial University of Vienna. Unfortunately his life long health issues did not improve and after catching tuberculosis he passed away at the age of only 50.

His name name and research remains in many aspects of physics, and astronomy. Next to the Doppler Effect, he has published numerous works on electricity, magnetism, optics, and astronomy in his life and was known to be a revolutionary thinker, although some theoies would not work out in practice.

At yovisto you can learn more about the Doppler effect in MIT Professor Walter Lewin's lecture on Physics, where he discusses its principles.



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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of Pulsars

A composite image of the Crab Nebula showing the X-ray (blue), and optical (red) images superimposed.
On November 28, 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Anthony Hewish discovered the first Pulsar, a fast rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. The radiation of a pulsar can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing toward the Earth, much the way a lighthouse can only be seen when the light is pointed in the direction of an observer, and is responsible for the pulsed appearance of emission.

In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Professor Antony Hewish began to analyse the results of the radio telescope, which they had put up to search for radio signals from quasars. Bell Burnell noticed pulses from the same location recurring in short periods, wherefore sources like regular stars could be excluded. Also, the pulses followed sidereal time, and therefore it was clear that these interferences could not have been man-made. Due to these facts, Bell Burnell and Hewish named the strange signal LGM-1 (Little Green Man), since they could neither prove nor disprove the signal's source coming from an extraterrestrial civilization. After another pulsating source was discovered, both scientists abandoned the LGM-theory and the pulsar was later renamed into CP 1919. Hewish and Bell Burnell also described the pulsar being a "novel type between a white dwarf and a neutron", which was supported by the astrophysicists Thomas Gold (a colleague of the famous Fred Hoyle) and Franco Pacini a year after its discovery.

In the following years, further pulsars were detected. The discovery of a pulsar in a binary system in 1974 was special due to the fact that it provided evidence of the existence of gravitational waves with the help of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Don Backer discovered almost a decade later a pulsar with an extraordinary short rotation period of only 1.6 milliseconds, wherefore the new class of millisecond pulsars was found.

But, coming back to the pulsar discovery of 1967, Anthony Hewish was awarded the Nobel Price of Physics for his achievements on the pulsar, while Jocelyn Bell Burnell wasn't. Bell Burnell worked, after finishing her Ph.D degree at the University of Southhampton, at the University College London, the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, and was highly active as a tutor and lecturer for the Open University. She was later teaching at Princeton University and President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

At yovisto you can watch Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself introducing the pulsing radio stars she discovered as a doctoral student.



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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ada Lovelace - The World's Very First Programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852)
Portrait by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

On November 27, 1852, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is considered to be the world's very first programmer, passed away. Every student of computer science should have heart of the world's first programmer, Ada Countess of Lovelace, assistant to Charles Babbage, inventor of the very first programmable (mechanical) computer, the analytical engine. Allthough probably not widely known to the general public, there are Ada Lovelace tuition programs for girls, a programming language called 'ADA', as well as numerous references in popular culture, literature, and even a graphic novel.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born on December 10, 1815, as Ada Augusta Byron, daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron, to a wealthy family of nobility. Still, her childhood was pretty unfortunate. Since her parents got divorced early, she never had a real relationship with her father George Gordon Byron, a poet, and her mother used to refer to her daughter Ada as 'it'. However, Augusta Ada Byron received an early mathematical education, uncommon for girls in her age. Luckily, Ada's talents and her brilliance were quickly detected and would basically determine the rest of her life.

Ada's love to mathematics and her admiration for the scientist Mary Somerville led to a meeting of Charles Babbage and herself in 1833, which was to change her life critically. Babbage published a paper on his famous difference engine about 10 years earlier, a calculating machine designed to tabulate polynomial functions. Augusta Ada Byron was highly interested in Charles Babbage's work and especially in his machine, which many scientists were talking about. After some scientific debates with Babbage, he was deeply in love with her writing abilities as well as her mathematical skills, wherefore he called her the 'enchantress of numbers'.

Ada's ascent to being a recognized scientist was hard due to her family's public attention as well as to the fact that women in science and technology were still rare in the middle of the 19th century. Still, her chance came with Babbage's publication of the 'analytical engine', a successor of the prior 'difference engine' and the very first general purpose programmable mechanical computer. Ada was to translate an article of Luigi Menabrea about the new machine, adding numerous notes explaining the machine's function. It is to be added that Ada's notes turned out being longer than the original work itself, because most scientists were not able to understand the difference between the two machines of Babbage. Ada also explained an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the new machine, wherefore she is now mostly known for being the world's first computer programmer. As many researchers read Ada's work over the years, they recognized her being even more visionary than Babbage himself. Unfortunately, an operational version of the analytical engine was not built until 2002 - due to the lack of accuracy of contemporary precision engineering - and Ada was recognized for her work only over a century after the first publication, when the engine was proven to be an early model of the computer.

Ada Lovelace has critically influenced early achievements on programming but also faced lifelong difficulties with her family as well as with society, that rather emphasized her antics with alcohol, men or gambling than paying attention to her mathematical brilliance.

During her short life, Ada Lovelace has made many acquaintances with scientists, inventors, and writers such as Charles Dickens or Andrew Crosse. The interesting - more or less fictional - relationship between the famous Michael Faraday and Ada Lovelace was dramatized by Ralf Bönt's novel 'Die Entdeckung des Lichts' (in english: The discovery of the light). Faraday was not the only scientist enchanted by the presence of Lady Lovelace. Even Konrad Zuse, inventor of the first modern computer, was according to German novelist F. C. Delius in his book 'Die Frau, für die ich den Computer erfand' (in english: The woman, for who I invented the Computer) motivated by the thought of the 19th century 'Enchantress of Numbers'.

At yovisto you can learn more about Ada Lovelace in the video report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explaining the contribution and importance of the Countess of Lovelace in the field of engineering.



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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Archeological Discovery of the Century - Tutankhamun's Tomb

Tutankhamun's famous burial mask
© Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
On November 26, 1922, Archeologist Howard Carter together with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, opened the unharmed tomb of pharao Tutankhamun, one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century.

King Tut, as the Egyptian pharaoh of the 'New Kingdom' was called in popular culture, ruled between 1332 BC and 1323 BC. When the prince, back then called Tutankhaten became king, he was only ten years old, nevertheless he brought many changed to his folks against his father's wishes, who had replaced the traditional religion. Tutankhaten, for instance, restored the worship of the god Amun, changed the capital or abandoned others from the dominion. It did not take long until the young king changed his name to Tutankhamun, as an illustration of dissociation from his father's ideals and politics. But unfortunately, the king was not allowed to reign more than nine years since he died at the age of 19 under unclear circumstances. It was widely known that he suffered many health issues but the actual reason for his death is unknown up to this date even though scientists from all over the world have researched for several decades now.

The story of Tuthankamen's tomb discovery began already in 1907. Theodore M. Davis had just discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Horemheb, who depicted the last one of the 18th dynasty and therefore ruled after Tutankhamun. However, Davis also discovered several artifacts with king Tut's name and assumed to have found his entire tomb. It was about one decade later, when the experienced Howard Carter, Egyptologist and archeologist was given the task to perfom several excavations by Lord Carnarvon. The first thing found by a crew member was a step leading to another and another. The team was excited and called for Carnarvon, who instantly came and made his way together with Carter through a door into an empty room. Knowing that there must be a secret door, Carter managed to find it and revealed a chamber filled with treasures, statues and most important, Tutankhamun's tomb. Carter's first impressions were stated as following:
"As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold - everywhere the glint of gold...I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things."
The tomb was seen by the Carter and his employer for the first time in 3000 years and also the pharaoh's sarcophagus was opened with only one journalist allowed to participate. It then took eight years from the date of its discovery to remove carefully all objects from the tomb for investigations and exhibitions. The tomb remains the most famous of all times due to the fact that its contents were held almost perfectly intact for 3000 years.

At yovisto you can learn more about the pharao Tutankhamun and his relics in the presentation of Nicholas Reeves at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts about 'Behind the Mask of Tutankhamun'.



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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lope de Vega and the Spanish Golden Age of Literature

Lope de Vega (1562-1635)
On November 25, 1562, Spanish poet Lope de Vega, or with full name Félix Lope de Vega Carpio, one of the key figures in the Spanish 'Siglo de Oro', the Golden Century Baroque literature, was born. His reputation in the world of Spanish literature is second only to that of Miguel de Cervantes, while the sheer volume of his literary output is unequalled, making him one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature. Nicknamed "The Phoenix of Wits" and "Monster of Nature" by Cervantes, Lope de Vega renewed the Spanish theatre at a time when it was starting to become a mass cultural phenomenon.

Lopé Felix de Vega Carpio was born at Madrid fifteen years after Miguel de Cervantes as second son and third child of Francisca Fernandez Flores and Félix de Vega, an embroiderer. His relations, who were noble, though poor, gave him the basis of a liberal education. At the age of five he was already reading Spanish and Latin, by his tenth birthday he was translating Latin verse, and he wrote his first play when he was 12. Fortunately, the Bishop of Avila came upon Lope and, sensing the young boy's talent, took him under his wing and finally enabled Lope's enrollment at the University of Alcalá. After graduation, the duke of Alba took him into his employment as secretary. His love affair began with Elena Osorio, an actress of exceptional beauty and maturity, though awhile into their relationship she changed suit and chose another man over him. Obviously this was quite traumatic for Lope and he was exiled from Castile for eight years due to his attacks on her and her family.

During this time was driven into the Spanish Navy, where in 1583 he took part in the Spanish expedition against the Azores and in 1588 he took service with the "Invincible Armada," which was intended to place England under the Spanish yoke, but was itself almost annihilated. Lope's luck again served him well, and his ship, the San Juan, was one of the few vessels to make it home to Spanish harbors in the aftermath of that failed expedition. Back in Spain, he passed the remainder of his exile in Valencia, at that time a centre of considerable dramatic activity, and took to the serious writing of plays. In 1590 he was appointed secretary to the duke of Alba, whom he followed to Toledo and then to the ducal estate at Alba de Tormes, where his wife died in childbirth in 1595.

From 1605 until his death he remained a confidential secretary and counselor to the duke of Sessa, with whom he maintained a voluminous and revealing correspondence. In 1608 he was also named to a sinecure position as a familiar of the Inquisition and then prosecutor (promotor fiscal) of the Apostolic Chamber. By this time, Vega had become a famous poet and was already regarded as the “phoenix of Spanish wits.” His writing in the early 1610s also assumed heavier religious influences and, in 1614, he joined the priesthood. His patron, the duke, fearful of losing Vega’s services, succeeded in having one of the poet’s former lovers, the actress Lucia de Salcedo, to seduce Vega. Thus, the duke was able to permanently recover his secretary. Vega thereafter became involved in new and scandalous romantic relationships. The most notable and lasting of his relationships during this time was with Marta de Nevares, who would remain with him until her death in 1632. Further tragedies followed in 1635 with the loss of Lope, his son by Micaela and a worthy poet in his own right, in a shipwreck off the coast of Venezuela, and the abduction and subsequent abandonment of his beloved youngest daughter Antonia. Lope de Vega took to his bed and died of Scarlet fever, in Madrid, on 27 August of that year. His death evoked national mourning throughout Spain.

Lope's life contained as much romance, adventure, and conflict as that of any of his fictional characters. During his lifetime, Lope de Vega had many affairs. He was married twice, and fathered at least six children; only three of the children were said to be birthed by his wives. He continued to have affairs, even when he became a priest in 1614. He was a prolific writer with a vast output. Overall, he is attributed some 3,000 sonnets, 3 novels, 4 novellas, 9 epic poems, and about 1,800 plays. Although the quality of all of them is not the same, at least 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces. To hold the attention of his audiences, Lope de Vega kept the length of his plays relatively short, consciously ignored the classical unities, convoluted his plots to produce the unexpected, and wrote so as to be easily understood by the common people.

At yovisto you can learn more about Lope de Vega and his work in the lecture of Prof. Valerie Hegstrom on 'Tragedy or Comedy? The Results of Rash Young Love in Lope de Vega'.


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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'

Huxley's illustration showing that humans and apes had the same basic skeletal structure
On November 24, 1859, famous biologist and founder of the science of evolution Charles Darwin published his seminal treaty 'On the Origin of Species', which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Charles Darwin began his studies on natural history in the 1820's, where he first heard of the transmutation of species by Robert Grant. Further influences of that period were Alexander von Humboldt, John Herschel, John Stevens Henslow, and most important Charles Lyell, the geologist who just published his famous 'Principles of Geology'. Inspired by Lyell's ideas on uniformitarianism, Darwin applied these theories to his experiments at the Beagle expedition, trying to find the modern species' center of creation. Soon he came to the idea that a species changes into another and drew an evolutionary tree, which was contrary to Lamarck's principles. He developed his theory of natural selection and began a fruitful correspondence with Charles Lyell. It was then also Charles Lyell who helped Darwin to publish his work and the book 'On the Origin of Species' faced an instant success.

In summary, Darwin's theory depicted that every species evolved from another previous species through natural selection and was not independently created by God. In Darwin's work a detailed definition of natural selection is given, followed by an explanation on how this process 'produces' species. In later editions Darwin is also responding to opposing theories. His main ideas were summarized by the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr as following:
  • Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow
  • Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size
  • Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time
  • A struggle for survival ensues
  • Individuals in a population vary significantly from one another
  • Much of this variation is inheritable
  • Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection
  • This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species
After the publication of Darwin's masterpiece, he had to face a wide range of reactions. The book caused Darwin international attention an the term 'darwinism' was created for all ideas concerning evolutionism. His theories were able to dominate over Lamarck's in the scientific community.

On yovisto you can learn more about Charles Darwin and his 'Origin of Species' in the lecture of Prof. John P. Huelsenbeck from Berkeley about 'Darwin and the Origin'.



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Friday, November 23, 2012

Otto the Great - Founder of the Holy Roman Empire

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, France
On November 23, 912 AD, Otto I, also referred to as Otto the Great, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and founder of the Ottonian dynasty of German emperors, was born as the oldest son of the Duke of Saxony Henry the Fowler ("Heinrich, der Vogler" referring to a German poem „Herr Heinrich sitzt am Vogelherd…“ by Johann Nepomuk Vogl (1835)) and his second wife Matilda of Ringelheim. By the time of Otto's birth, the German crown was in possession of the Franks. On December 23, 918, Conrad I of Germany, the King of East Francia and Duke of Franconia, died. On his deathbed Conrad persuaded his younger brother Duke Eberhard of Franconia, the presumptive heir, to offer the crown to Otto's father Henry, although both had been at odds with one another. Nevertheless, Conrad considered Henry to be the only German duke capable of holding the German kingdom together. Thus, in May 919 for the first time ever a Saxon instead of a Frank reigned over the kingdom.

Otto gained first experience as a military commander when the German kingdom fought against Slavic tribes on its eastern border. With Henry's dominion over the entire kingdom secured by 929, his son Otto was designated by his father to receive the crown, confirming him as Henry's heir. When Henry died of a cerebral stroke on July 2, 936, at his palace, the Kaiserpfalz in Memleben, all German tribes were united in a single realm. Otto at the age of 23 years already held his father's position as Duke of Saxony and was elected as King by receiving the German crown on August 7, 936 in Charlemagne's former capital of Aachen. His coronation at Aachen showed that the Carlovingian traditions of empire were still in force. It was the rulers of the other great duchies that caused Otto initial problems. But by 947 he had solved them by absorbing the duchy of Franconia into his direct rule and by handing over the others, Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria, to members of his family. By 951 Otto had been drawn into Italy by the fear that it might be absorbed by the nearby king of Burgundy or his own dukes of Swabia or Bavaria. Otto managed to cope with this problem by crossing Italy and marrying Adelaid, the widowed Italian Queen - thus establishing his claims to her lands. Before he could consolidate his position there, however, he was drawn back to Germany by a revolt of his leading dukes, led by his son and heir, and by a serious incursion of the nearby Hungarians. He put down the revolt and crushed the Hungarians at the decisive battle of Lechfeld in 955.

One of Otto's strategies was to engage churchmen to help him to govern his realm and to furnish him with armed forces, such as, e.g. his brother Archbishop Bruno of Cologne, whom he entrusted the duchy of Lorraine. By appointing churchmen to office, whose feuds were not heredetery, Otto managed to establish a most useful and dependable counterweight to the secular nobles, who often were unreliable and had heirs as well. Thus he installed the so-called Ottonian system, a close alliance of the German realm with the Church. But, Otto did also well in foreign policy. He intervened in the struggle between the French Capetians and Carolingians and thus assured himself of their acceptance of his absorption of Lorraine into the empire. He kept control over Hedeby and the archbishoprics in Denmark. He began the conquest of the Slavs beyond the Elbe River, and he forced the Duke of Bohemia to do him homage.

Finally, in 961, the ancient idea of an universal empire now possessed Otto's mind and he invaded Italy and after conquering Rome, Otto was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII on February 2, 962. Later on, Otto and the Pope quarreled, and it was not without some difficulty that he was able to replace the pope with another candidate, whom he forced upon the clergy and nobles of Rome. Otto spent his last years mostly in Italy, where he tried unsuccessfully to absorb Venice and southern Italy, which were controlled by Byzantium. Before his death in 973, however, Otto was able to secure Byzantine recognition of his imperial title and a Byzantine princess as a bride for his son Otto II. Otto was buried at Magdeburg. His contemporaries always compared his tremendous physical strength to that of a lion.

We should not forget to mention that Otto also deserves credit for supporting learning and culture, which resulted in the so-called Ottonian Renaissance that helped to keep learning alive for the future. The clergymen he appointed often proved interested in building and in supporting culture in their monastic and episcopal establishments. Thanks to them, culture continued to flourish, making the Age of the Ottos an important intellectual and architectural one for medieval Europe.

At yovisto you can learn more about Otto the Great and the Middle Ages in the presentation of Prof. Jeanne S. M. Willette from OTIS college of Arts and Sciences on 'Carolingian and Ottonian Art'.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sir Arthur Eddington - The Man who Proved Einstein's General Relativity

Arthur Eddington (1882 - 1944)
On November 22, 1944, British astrophysicist and philosopher Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington passed away. He became famous for his 1919 solar eclipse expedition to Principe, where he conducted astrophysical experiments to give proof for Albert Einstein's seminal theory of general relativity.

Through hard work and lots of talent, Eddington earned a scholarship to Owens College, where he was able to improve his knowledge in physics. He was then tutored by the mathematician R. A. Herman and later taught mathematics himself to engineering students. His interests for the field of astronomy began in the early 1900's, when Eddington was occupied as chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich. During World War I, the young astronomer kept his pacifist views and asked all scientists to think twice and to not let the war limit the scientific possibilities.

It was also during the war, when Eddington received letters concerning Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and since he was among very few scientists able to understand the complex theory he became a great supporter of relativity. He was even able to confirm Einstein's views on the bending of light that passed close to the Sun through observations during a solar eclipse. This caused him a great reputation and he was a well known scientists from then on.

Another milestone in Eddington's career was his definition of the so called 'Eddington luminosity' of stars, which demonstrated that nearly all stars behave as 'ideal gases' and that the inner temperature of a star has to be millions of degrees. As a supporter of the theory of an expanding universe influenced by Edwin Hubble, he still rejected the big bang theory and preferred Einstein's cosmological constant, a modification of his theory of general relativity.

Eddington published several books and gave a great amount of public talks, which were very popular due to his entertaining way of presenting the relatively dry and mathematical subjects. He was also active in creative writing and composed a parody of the poem 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' concerning the solar eclipse experiment that made him famous:
"Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate
One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT
One thing is certain, and the rest debate -
Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT
But Eddington is not only known for his major contributions to the field of astronomy and his entertaining scientific books. He was also a philosopher who liked to discuss his mathematical problems in a philosophical sense after his lectures. Due to his high popularity and his scientific achievements, Arthur Stanley Eddington was knighted, a Lunar crater was named after him as well as the asteroid 2761, and he received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society.

At yovisto you can learn more about Arthur Eddington's 1919 expedition in the talk of Prof. Peter Cole about 'Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions'.



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  • Edmund Halley and his famous Comet
  • The Arecibo Radio Telescope - Looking for Extraterrestrial Signals
  • Eris - The Planet of Discord
  • The Sputnik Shock
  • A4 - The First Human Vessel To Touch Outer Space
  • SpaceShipOne - The first private Spaceship
  • James van Allen and the Weather in Space
  • And yet it moves - Galileo Galilei and his major achievements
  • The First Image from Abroad - Earth Rising and Lunar Orbiter 1
  • Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang Theory
  • Shoemaker-Levy 9 hits Jupiter
  • The Eagle has Landed - The First Man on the Moon
  • To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before - Voyager 2
  • The Supernova of 1054
  • Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Voltaire - Libertarian and Philosopher

    Voltaire (1694 - 1778)
    On November 21, 1694, François-Marie Arouet was born, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, French philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment, re-known by his wits, prolific writer of novels, poems, essays, and letters, and dear friend of Prussian king Frederick the Great.

    Voltaire was born in Paris to a son of a lawyer and began studying first Latin and Greek and later on Italian and Spanish. The decision to become a writer was made by Voltaire early and without the support of his father who always planned Voltaire to follow his footsteps. Against Voltaire's wishes, he was sent to law school, but continued writing poetry secretly.

    The young thinker Voltaire was known to have difficult character traits and opinions, wherefore he often had trouble with governmental officials and the church due to his opposing views towards religion. These difficulties with the society and the French political system increased more than ever after Voltaire insulted the nobleman Chevalier de Rohan and was sent to Great Britain, where he was exiled for three years. Great Britain highly influenced his ways of thinking and his thoughts of different political systems. He also began to admire the creative works of Shakespeare and the scientific achievements of Isaac Newton. After returning to Paris, he published his new ideas wherefore the French government felt attacked by Voltaire and he was again forced to leave Paris.

    Voltair moved to Potsdam to live with his friend Frederick the Great, until again getting in trouble and being arrested once more for distributing his controversial opinions. He moved to Geneva, where he wrote some of his best known works and was able to return to his hometown Paris, where he passed away in 1778.

    Voltaire's creative writings were at first dominated by poems. One of his most famous was the 'Henriade', which was a great success in the 18th century and was translated numerous times. His poetry and prose was characterized by his unique style of writing very ironically and criticizing political systems clearly without unnecessary exaggerations. Most typical for his style was the satire 'Candide', which opposes Gottfried Leibniz' optimism, the aristocracy in general, the Inquitision, as well as slavery and war.

    Voltaire's philosophical works were highly influenced by his views on religion. Contrary to most philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment, he saw himself as a deist and spread his ideas not only concerning Christianity, but also about the Islam. This evolving religion's leader was called "the founder of a false and barbarous sect" by Voltaire. Still, he supported religious tolerance in general and requested all Christians to do the same.

    Even though Voltaire's views on society, religion, and politics were highly discussed and counted as controversial all his lifetime and beyond, he was one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment period, along with Montesquieu, Rousseau, and John Locke who critically affected the thoughts of the French and American Revolution.

    At yovisto you can learn more about the exceptional character of Voltaire in the Fall 2010 lecture of MIT Prof. James Paradis about 'Voltaire and the Accidental World'.



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    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Benoît Mandelbrot and the Beauty of Mathematics

    The Mandelbrot set, named after mathematician Benoite B. Mandelbrot,  has become an iconic figure.
    On November 20, 1924, French American mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot was born. Mandelbrot worked on a wide range of mathematical problems, including mathematical physics and quantitative finance, but is best known as the popularizer of fractal geometry. He was the one who coined the term 'fractal' and described the Mandelbrot set named after him.

    So, who of you has a set that is named after you? Ok, there are (were) quite some famous mathematicians who own a set: the Julia set, the Cantor set, Borel sets, the Zermelo–Fraenkel set (theory), ...ok and now I run out of set names. If you are searching at Google for 'sets named after mathematicians' you will definitely end up with a lot of 'Mandelbrot' results. Moreover, the graphical representation of his set in the 1980s raised popular public interest in mathematics in general and especially in computer graphics. BTW, this worked also for me and I developed my first interest in computer graphics when analyzing Mandelbrot sets for a school project. B ut this was already a long time ago ;-)

    Benoît Mandelbrot was born in Warsaw into a Jewish family from Lithuania with strong academic tradition. His father, however, made his living buying and selling clothes while his mother was a doctor and his two uncles introduced Benoite in the wonderworld of mathematics. Mandelbrot's family emigrated to France in 1936, where Mandelbrot studied at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon and in 1945 - 47 attended the École Polytechnique, where he studied under Gaston Julia (sic! here is another man with a set named after him.... the famous Julia sets). From 1947 to 1949 he worked on a master degree in aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology. Returning to France, he obtained his Ph.D. degree in Mathematical Sciences at the University of Paris in 1952. From 1949 to 1958 Mandelbrot was a staff member at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. During this time he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was sponsored by the famous computer pioneer John von Neumann.

    But, let's talk about fractals. From the time of the ancient Greeks, geometry had studied a restricted range of objects, i.e. lines, circles, planes, cylinders and so on. Euclid's geometry did hold until the 19th century, where under the impact of new developments in physics, especially electricity and magnetism, mathematician scientists like Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann extended geometry into higher dimensions. They examined properties such as curvature that were often far beyond our daily experience. This was the type of geometry that Einstein could apply to his theories of relativity. Nevertheless, even these new geometries relate to things that are smooth and even “tame” in some sense. Mandelbrot began looking at many different branches of science - turbulence in fluid mechanics and meteorology, price fluctuations in economics, the growth of cells in physiology, the clustering of galaxies, the shape of trees and plants - and realised that traditional smooth geometry was often at best a crude approximation. Mandelbrot wanted to show that what often appeared to be wild or random fluctuations that did not obey the laws of statistics could in fact be explained by simple mathematical laws or rules. His fundamental idea was that of “self similarity.” This approach enabled a geometry to be applied to things where it did not previously seem possible, as e.g., to clouds, coastlines or mountains.

    At IBM - Mandelbrot spent most of his career at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, and was appointed as an IBM Fellow - Mandelbrot was able to use computers in a new way that has since become central to many branches of science. “I made them [the computer and computer graphics], not a tool to be called on only if needed, but a constant and integral part of my process of thinking,” he wrote. Over the decades, Mandelbrot’s ideas have become incorporated into a new mathematical area called chaos theory and are now widely respected. The small asteroid 27500 Mandelbrot was named in his honor. In November 1990, he was made a Knight in the French Legion of Honour.

    At yovisto you can listen to Benoite Mandelbrot himself explaining 'Fractals and the art of roughness'.


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    Monday, November 19, 2012

    Humphry Davy and the Electrolysis

    Sir Humphry Davy (1778 - 1829)
    Painting by Thomas Phillips
    On November 19, 1807, British chemist and inventor Humphry Davy reported to the Royal Society about the isolation of potassium and sodium from different salts by electrolysis. Davy was one of the pioneers in the field of electrolysis using the newly invented voltaic pile to split up common compounds and thus prepare many new elements.

    Humphry Davy was born in 1778 in Great Britain as the son of a wood carver. His talents were soon detected, wherefore the young Davy was sent to adequate schools. He could perform several experiments, instructed by Robert Dunkin, founder of the science of electrochemistry, and was soon known to be a young and talented chemist, who frightened everyone with his experiments. But Humphry Davy not only spent his time in laboratories, he was also a gifted poet and wrote many pieces until finally abandoning poetry for science in sense of his career. Still he wrote many poems about his life and works as a scientists, like "On Breathing Nitrous Oxide":

    "Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire
    Have I beheld a rapture-wakening form:
    My bosom burns with no unhallow'd fire,
    Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm;
    Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre fill'd;
    Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound;
    Yet are my limbs with inward transport fill'd;
    And clad with new-born mightiness around."
    His first scientific achievements were made after Davy published his works on 'Heat and Light', which resulted in a post as an assistent to superintend the laboratory at the 'Pneumatic Institution' in Bristol, where the medical powers of factitious airs and gases were to be observed. He executed numerous experiments with different kinds of gases, often on his own body which caused him pain and persistent health issues. Davy published many articles on his discoveries and became a well known and liked scientist.

    At around 1800, Humphry Davy moved to London and was from then on occupied at the Royal Institution to give chemical lectures, to take care of the laboratories and editor of the institution's journals. The students very much enjoyed his lectures, due to his entertaining way of presenting the institution's scientific discoveries. He performed many dangerous experiments in the lecture halls with a great portion of charm and humour, wherefore he was soon one of the most popular scientists in London.

    Davy's good reputation grew even bigger as soon as he was known to be the pioneer of electrolysis. Using the voltaic pile, he was able to establish new metals like magnesium, boron or barium. The voltaic pile itself was invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta and depicted the very first voltage source able to initiate a long lasting current flow. Humphry Davy noticed Volta's discovery through its publishing at the Royal Institution and performed his first experiment with litmus paper to discover a flow of ions during the electrolysis. He was then able to extract potassium and metallic sodium, which caused him a great attention in the scientific community and beyond.

    His achievements in chemistry seemed to never end. Davy improved Carl Wilhelm Scheele's discoveries with chlorine and continued his entertaining lectures on the newest efforts on his fields of research. Davy began giving lectures for the public, which were always overcrowded due to his enjoyable talks. It was also one of these public talks when the curious Michael Faraday, back then just an apprentice to a book binder, saw Davy Humphrey, which changed his whole life plan. Davy supported Michael Faraday (at least for some years) like no other, which made many discoveries in physics and chemistry by Faraday possible. Faraday was then to become an even more influential scientist, which caused several tensions between the two, but that is a whole different story...

    At yovisto you can learn more about electrolysis in Prof. Alexander Pines lecture on chemistry.


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    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    The Brothers Grimm and the Göttingen Seven

    The Göttingen Seven. Top row: Wilhelm Grimm, Jacob Grimm.
    Middle Row:Wilhelm Eduard Albrecht, Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann,
    Georg Gottfried Gervinus.  Bottom Row:Wilhelm Eduard Weber,
    Heinrich Georg August Ewald.
    On November 18, 1837, a group of 7 university professors from the University of Göttingen protested against the abolition or alteration of the constitution of the Kingdom of Hanover by Ernest Augustus and refused to swear an oath to the new king of Hanover. The Göttingen Seven (in German "Göttinger Sieben") were led by Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann, who himself was one of the key advocates of the unadulterated constitution. The other six were the Germanist brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (famed fairy tale and folk tale writers and storytellers; known together as the Brothers Grimm), the jurist Wilhelm Eduard Albrecht, the historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus, the physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber, and the theologian and orientalist Heinrich Georg August Ewald.

    We think of the Brothers Grimm as children’s writers, like Hans Christian Andersen, but that was hardly the case. They were in fact anthropologists and professor at the University of Göttingen. One of their forgotten works was the first German Dictionary. Jacob, the more robust one, would go into the countryside collecting folk tales, before the oral traditions disappeared. Little brother Wilhelm, more the story teller, would record them. What you probably didn't know was that they were also members of a political radical group called the “Gottingen Seven.”

    Back in 1833, after tedious negotiations, a constitution came into force in the kingdom of Hanover that belonged to the group of comparatively liberal constitutional states of the German Confederation. The historian and politician Christoph Friedrich Dahlmann was one of the main contributors to its framing as representative of the University of Göttingen in the second chamber of the noble court. With the death of King William IV of Great Britain and Hanover on June 20, 1837, the personal union between both states came to an end and William’s brother, Ernest Augustus, took over as ruler. Immediately after taking over power, he declared on July 5, 1837 that he did not feel bound to the constitution which would not have come about without his consent which finally lead to the cancelation of the constitution on November 1. Dahlmann tried to persuade the University of Göttingen to oppose, but only six other professors, however, were willing to sign, among them the Germanists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. The document developed its true explosive force the moment it was published and soon was disseminated throughout Germany. Now king Ernst August felt forced to take drastic measures, in order to save face as still a “young” ruler.

    On December 4, the seven professors from Göttingen were questioned before the University court and relieved of their posts already a few days after. Dahlmann, Gervinus and Jakob Grimm had to leave Göttingen within three days, due to distribution of the document outside of the kingdom, and were expelled from the country. The others were allowed to remain in Göttingen after their release. While the actual, direct effects of the protest were limited, public sensation and media interest that occurred in Germany and much of Europe was high, and the seven were popular among the general public. For the city and the University of Göttingen, the protest of the seven professors was at first a large disadvantage, since their reputation sank in the eyes of the academic world. It became more and more difficult for the University to attract respected professors to Göttingen and, as a result, the students preferred to attend other universities. The efforts of the Göttingen Seven outlived each of them, and the impact they caused on German politics at large can be, in some part, attributed to the creation of a liberal republic in Germany.

    At yovisto you can learn more about the Brothers' Grimm most favourite hobby fairy tales and the future of storytelling from Prof. Armando Maggi in his lecture on Preserving the Spell: Fairy Tales and the Future of Story Telling.


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    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Doug Engelbart and the Computer Mouse

    First Computer Mouse Prototype
    © SRI International
    On November 17, 1970, Douglas C. Engelbart has been granted a patent on the world's first computer mouse.

    Using the computer mouse has become as usual as eating with knife and fork these days. But this has not always been the case, since the first computers had no graphical interface and every command had to be typed in with a keyboard, which made the use of computers quite complicated.

    It was Douglas Engelbart in 1963, who worked at the Stanford Research Institute on human computer interactions and was looking for a better solution to navigate though the system. His first prototype of a mouse was ready in 1968, Engelbart presented his results at a congress but found no prospective customer due to the unfortunate fact that graphical interfaces were still not in use.

    During the 1970's Engelbart was able to focus on his mouse-research at the Palo Alto Research Center, where he developed the very first ball-mouse, which was first used by Xerox. The company was already using graphical interfaces and therefore appreciated Engelbart's contributions.

    The development of the mouse gradually encouraged computer scientists to improve the graphical interfaces and to improve the computer's usability. The company Apple noticed the new trend, but also saw the difficulty that the new mouse was just too expensive (400 USD) for the market. They occupied many engineers to build a mouse that was smarter and could be sold for only 25$. The new improved pointer was first introduced with Apples computer 'Lisa', but due to the high costs of the computer it was not a great success. However, the release of 'Lisa' and the new computer mouse was a breakthrough and was seen as the ultimate intersection between humans and machines.

    At yovisto you can watch Doug Engelbart himself talking about innovation and entrepreneurship at the UC Berkeley.



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