Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cogito Ergo Sum - René Descartes

René Descartes (1596-1650)
On March 31, 1596, French philosopher, mathematician, and writer René Descartes was born. The Cartesian coordinate system is named after him, allowing reference to a point in space as a set of numbers, and allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two-dimensional coordinate system. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution and has been described as an example of genius. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy'. His Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments.

René Descartes was born in the Touraine, France and attended the Jesuit College of La Fleche in 1606. At the school he learned Latin, Greek and studied the philosophies of Aristotele, Plato, the Stoics, and Cicero. Descartes also studied curiously mathematics, physics, and especially the works of Galileo Galilei. Just like many of Descartes' ancestors, he was supposed to become a lawyer, but never actually practiced law or anything like it after graduating in 1616. Instead, Descartes became a soldier as support to Protestant Prince Maurice for some years.

One of his first influences depicted Isaac Beeckman, a mathematician and natural philosopher, who met with Descartes while stationed at Breda. In these years, Descartes discovered the technique of describing lines through mathematical equations, which led to the combination of both, algebra and geometry. Algebra and analysis evolved step by step after Descartes' findings and the coordinate system of algebraic geometry came to be called “Cartesian coordinates” in honor to the scientist. Later on, Descartes enrolled at Leiden University, studying mathematics and astronomy and then became teacher at Utrecht University.

In the 1620's, René Descartes worked on a metaphysical piece on the existence of God, nature, and soul as well as tried to explain the set of parhelia in Rome. He combined both in the work Treatise on the World, which consisted of three parts. Only two of these, The Treatise of Light and the Treastise of Man survived. The two parts gave a good illustration of the universe as a system including all of its structures, operations, planet formations, light transmission, and the role of the human on Earth. However, Descartes abandoned his plans to publish the Treatise on the World after Galileo was condemned. He continued publishing works on philosophy, geometry, meterology and his most famous Discours de la Métode, demonstrating four rules of thought. Further influential works followed after 1641, when Descartes published his Mediations on First Philosophy and his Principles of Philosophy.

During his lifetime, Descartes is now regarded as one of the first to write about the importance of reason in natural sciences rejecting any doubtable ideas. This was illustrated in his famous phrase 'cogito ergo sum' (I think, therefore i am) through which he concluded that doubting the existence of a person was already the prove of one's presence. Descartes was also known for his dualism. He once wrote that a human body functioned like a machine with material properties and the mind, both interacting at the pineal gland. In other words, this means that the body is controlled by the mind and vise versa.

Through his works, René Descartes was able to set the foundations of the society's emancipation from the Church, and shifting it from the medieval to the modern period. In mathematics, Descartes was able to lay the foundations for Leibniz and Newton to develop calculus and he discovered the law of reflection, achieving a critical contribution to the field of optics.

René Descartes passed away on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm. In 1663, Pope Alexander VII set his works on the 'Index of Prohibited Books'.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Dr. Richard Brown on Descartes' Method of Doubt.

References and Further Reading:
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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Francisco Goya, Herald of Modernity

Francisco Goya:
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters , 1797
On March 30, 1746, Spanish romantic painter and printmaker Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was born. He is regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. Goya was a court painter to the Spanish Crown, and through his works was both a commentator on and chronicler of his era. The subversive imaginative element in his art, as well as his bold handling of paint, provided a model for the work of later generations of artists.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born on March 30, 1746, in Fuendetodos, a village in northern Spain, as son of José Benito de Goya y Franque, a gilder, and Gracia de Lucientes y Salvador. The family moved to Zaragoza and at about age 14 Goya was apprenticed to Jose Luzan, a local painter. Later he went to Rome to continue his study of art and was able to win second prize in a painting competition organized by the City of Parma. On returning to Saragossa in 1771, he painted frescoes for the local cathedral. These works, done in the decorative rococo tradition, established Goya's artistic reputation, while his painting began to show signs of the delicate tonalities for which he became famous.

From 1775 to 1792 Goya painted cartoons (designs) to be woven by the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. This was the most important period in his artistic development. Actually, Goya designed some 42 patterns, many of which were used to decorate the bare stone walls of El Escorial and the Palacio Real del Pardo, the newly built residences of the Spanish monarchs near Madrid. As a tapestry designer, Goya did his first genre paintings, or scenes from everyday life. The experience helped him become a keen observer of human behavior. He was also influenced by neoclassicism, which was gaining favor over the rococo style. Meanwhile, Goya achieved his first popular success. In 1783, the Count of Floridablanca, a favourite of King Carlos III, commissioned Goya to paint his portrait. He also became friends with Crown Prince Don Luis, painting portraits of both the Infante and his family. Thus, he managed to become established as a portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy and was elected to the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1780, named painter to the king in 1786, and made a court painter in 1789 with a salary of 50,000 reales and 500 ducats for a coach. His portraits are notable for their refusal to flatter, and in the case of 'Charles IV of Spain and His Family', the lack of visual diplomacy even is remarkable, because it almost looks like a satire.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800-1801)
A serious illness in 1792 left Goya permanently deaf. Isolated from others by his deafness, he became increasingly occupied with the fantasies and inventions of his imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind. During his recuperation, he undertook a series of experimental paintings, drawings as well as a bitter series of aquatinted etchings, published in 1799 under the title Caprichos. These prints were an artistic experiment and served as a medium for Goya's condemnation of the universal follies and foolishness in the Spanish society in which he lived. His criticisms are far-ranging and acidic. He condemns the predominance of superstition, the ignorance and inabilities of the aristocracy and the clergy. The informal style, as well as the depiction of contemporary society found in Caprichos, makes them (and Goya himself) a precursor to the Modernist movement almost a century later. Especially 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters' (shown on the top left of this article) in particular has attained an iconic status.

The Third of May (1814)
In 1814, Goya painted his most famous painting, 'The Third of May'. In it, soldiers are shooting innocent people, all men with the town’s Catholic Church behind them. This is based off a true event, when Napoleon had his soldiers come to Spain, and kill townsfolk, to try and force them to let him rule. Obviously, Goya was mentally and emotionally processing the war by painting. In the 1820s the famous Black Paintings followed with intense, haunting themes, which are considered the most outstanding works of his last years. In the beginning they were painted like fresco painting on the walls of the house where Goya was living in the outskirts of Madrid. In these pictures, Goya made frequent use of black, brown, and grey tones, demonstrating that his character became more and more dark and shady. Later in in 1873 these paintings were transferred from the walls to linen cloth. At the age of 82, Goya died of a stroke in 1828 in his residence in Bordeaux accompanied by a few close friends. A few days before, at the bottom of one of his drawings, he wrote: "I am still learning".

At yovisto you can learn more about Goya and his work in the lecture of Prof. Janis Thomlinson on 'From Capricho to Fatal Consequences: Goya`s Imagery of War 1809-1814'.

References and Further Reading:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Colonel Drake and the Petroleum

Edwin Drake (1819-1880)
On March 29, 1819, Petroleum entrepreneur Edwin Laurentine Drake, also known as Colonel Drake, was born. He is popularly credited with being the first to drill for oil in the United States. His success launched an Oil Rush and brought the world a new energy source.

Edwin Drake was born in Greenville, Greene County, New York, as son of Lyman and Laura Drake. He grew up on family farms around New York State and Castleton, Rutland County, Vermont before leaving home at the age of 19. He spent the early parts of his life working the railways around New Haven, Connecticut as a clerk, express agent and conductor for the New York and New Haven Railroad. Ill health forced his retirement in 1857, but it also opened a new opportunity for him. Thus, by 1858, the Drake family found themselves living in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

While petroleum oil was already known, there was no appreciable market for it. Samuel Martin Kier is credited with founding the first American oil refinery in Pittsburgh. In 1848, he began packaging petroleum oil as a patent medicine charging $0.50 per bottle.He also produced petroleum butter (petroleum jelly) and sold it as a topical ointment. Neither product proved to be a commercial success. After further experimenting, he discovered an economical way to produce kerosene and he became the first person in the United States to refine crude oil into lamp oil (kerosene). Along with a new lamp to burn Kier's product a new market to replace whale oil as a lamp oil began to develop in 1854.

Seneca Oil, originally called the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, was founded by George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth. They created the company after catching wind of reports that petroleum collected from an oil spring in Titusville, Pennsylvania was suitable for use as lamp fuel. Bissell found that the "rock oil" would be a practical alternative if a method could be devised to extract the oil from the ground. Interest in the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was initially low until a report commissioned by Bissell and Eveleth showed that there was significant economic value in petroleum. Before being offered a job by Bissell and Eveleth, Drake bought stock in Seneca Oil. But his job opportunity with the company arose because both parties were staying in the same hotel in Titusville. He was hired on a salary of $1,000 a year to investigate the oil seeps on land owned by Seneca Oil. One of the reasons, why the oil company chose the retired railway man maybe was because he had free use of the rail.

Drake decided to drill in the manner of salt well drillers. He purchased a steam engine to power the drill and hired William "Uncle Billy" A. Smith, a blacksmith and experienced salt well driller, to make the tools and do the drilling. The well was dug on an island on the Oil Creek. It took some time for the drillers to get through the layers of gravel. At about 5 meters the sides of the hole began to collapse. Those helping him began to despair, but not Drake. It was at this point that he devised the idea of a drive pipe. This cast iron pipe consisted of 3.0m long joints. The pipe was driven down into the ground. At about 10 meters they struck bedrock. The drilling tools were now lowered through the pipe and steam was used to drill through the bedrock. The going, however, was slow. Progress was made at the rate of just one meter per day. After initial difficulty locating the necessary parts to build the well, which resulted in his well being nicknamed "Drake's Folly", Drake finally proved successful. On August 27, 1859, the drill slipped into a crevice six inches below the 69-foot depth of the drilled hole. Uncle Billy pulled up the tools and headed home. The next day when he went back to the well, he discovered oil floating on the water just a few feet from the derrick floor.

Although, Drake had never been an officer, let alone in the military, James M. Townsend, one of the investors, used the salutatory title "Colonel" in his correspondence with Drake. The title stuck and Drake became commonly know as Colonel Drake. Drake set up a stock company to extract and market the oil. But, while his pioneering work led to the growth of an oil industry that made many people fabulously rich, for Drake it didn't work out. He failed to patent his drilling invention and furthermore lost all of his savings in oil speculation in 1863. He was to end up as an impoverished old man. In 1872, Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500 to the "crazy man" whose determination founded the oil industry. On November 9, 1880 Edwin Drake passed away in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he had lived since 1874.

At yovisto you can learn more about a post-oil economy in the TED talk by Rob Hobkins on 'A world without oil'.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pierre Simon de Laplace and his true love for Astronomy and Mathematics

Pierre Simon marquis de Laplace (1749-1827)
On March 28, 1749, French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Simon marquis de Laplace was born, whose work was pivotal to the development of mathematical astronomy and statistics. One of his major achievements was the conclusion of the five-volume Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics) which translated the geometric study of classical mechanics to one based on calculus, opening up a broader range of problems.

Pierre Simon Laplace, the son of a cider merchant was born in the Normandie, and grew up as a well educated child attending the local school at a Benedictine priory. In later years, he was sent to Caen in order to study theology and philosophy were he found out about his love to mathematics. Laplace quit his studies in 1768 applying to study mathematics under the most famous French mathematician of his time, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert. D’Alembert was immediately impressed by the young Laplace and ready to teach and support him.

Already three years later, Laplace taught geometry, trigonometry, analysis and statistics and published several works on game theory, probability theory and other difficult issues to improve his reputation. He was admitted to the Académie française at only 24 years. Laplace was about to become one of France's most influential scientists and had the honor to examine the future members of the royal artillery. One of his aspirants was the 16 year old Napoleon Bonaparte, who later offered Laplace a position as his minister of the interior.

In his later career, Laplace was occupied with several governmental positions next to his studies, becoming quite wealthy. He founded the Société d’Arcueil in order to perfom experiments with fellow scientists like Alexander von Humboldt. Unfortunately, Laplace's fame shrank through the years due to scientific and political conflicts.

However, Laplace's scientific contributions are numerous. In the field of astronomy, he published a work titled Traité de Mécanique Céleste, a collected work of all scientific approaches after Newton. In the book series he also demonstrated the mathematical prove for the stability of planetary orbits and wrote about the possibility of black holes. This work was a great success and used and studied by every astronomer or those willing to be one. Another one of his passions was the theory of probability and took Laplace to further and further mathematical problems like the expected value, or gambling theories. Laplace developed several new mathematical methods to reach his goals like the Laplace operator, or the Laplace transform.

At yovisto, you may lean more about Laplace's equation by watching Prof. Gilbert Strang's video lecture at MIT 

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen - The Father of Diagnostic Radiology

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
(1845 - 1923)
On March 27, 1845, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born. The German physicist is best known for producing and detecting electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range, better known as X-rays or Röntgen rays. Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his achievement in 1901.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born in Germany, but grew up in the Netherlands before enrolling at Utrecht's technical school. After being unfairly expelled from the University, Röntgen entered the University of Utrecht to study physics and later enrolled at the Polytechnic at Zurich to become a mechanical engineer. In the following years, Röntgen became the Chair of Physics in Würzburg, later Munich.

Röntgen published during his scientific career around 60 papers, starting at the age of 20. His first work dealt with heats of gases and later on he also published a paper on the thermal conductivity of crystals. The scientist also made several contributions to physics through the study of electrical characteristics of quartz, the modification of the planes of polarised light by electromagnetic influences or through his experiments on the functions of the temperature and compressibility on various fluids.

However, Röntgen is best known for his discovery of the X-rays also called Röntgen rays while occupied at the University of Würzburg in 1895. He investigated external effects from various types of vacuum tube equipment when electrical discharge was passed through. While performing his experiments with Lenard's tubes added by a thin aluminum window and a cardboard covering, Röntgen found out that invisible cathode rays caused a fluorescent effect on a barium platinocyanide painted cardboard when located closely to the aluminum window. Röntgen extended his experiments with the Hittorf-Crookes tube and came to the conclusion to have discovered a new kind of rays for the first time, which he temporally named X-rays. A few days later, Röntgen tried out his new discovery on his wife Anna Bertha. He took the first X-ray image of her hand. Seeing her own skeleton was quite shocking to her wherefore she said "I have seen my death!".

The scientist published his first of three papers on X-rays in December 1896 titled 'On a new kind of rays'. Röntgen was awarded an honorary Doctor of medicine for his achievement by the university and earned himself the reputation as the father of diagnostic radiology. In 1901, Röntgen was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics and donated the monetary reward from his prize to the university. He also refused to patent his discovery and did not want the X-rays to be named after him.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short demonstration of X-rays in the medical use.

References and Further Reading Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen at
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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Conrad Gessner's Truly Renaissance Knowledge

The Pachyderm, from Conrad Gesner 'Historiae animalium' (1551-58)
On March 26, 1516, Swiss naturalist and bibliographer Conrad Gessner was born. His five-volume Historiae animalium (1551–1558) is considered the beginning of modern zoology, and the flowering plant genus Gesneria is named after him. He is considered as one of the most important natural scientists of Switzerland and was sometimes referred to as the 'German Pliny'.

Conrad Gessner was born and educated in Zürich, Switzerland as the son of Ursus Gessner, a poor furrier, and his wife Agathe. The death of his father at the Battle of Kappel in 1531 as the wars spawned by the Reformation had reached also the Swiss cantons, left Conrad in a rather desolate condition. Fortunately, he happened to be also the godson and protegé of the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and with the help of the Protestant classics scholar Oswald Myconius and Heinrich Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli, Gessner was enabled to continue his studies at the universities of Strassburg and Bourges, where he displayed great linguistic talent and interest in nature. In 1535, religious unrest drove him back to Zürich, where he made an imprudent marriage.

In 1537 Gessner received a professorship in Greek at Lausanne and speedily compiled single-handedly an entire dictionary in that language. Here he had leisure to devote himself to scientific studies, especially botany. The city physician of Zurich prevailed upon the young scholar to resume his medical studies so after wandering across France, Gessner settled down at the medical school of Montpellier and became a doctor of medicine. At about 1540 Gessner began teaching Aristotelian physics at the Collegium Carolinium, the precursor of the University of Zürich. In his spare time he composed his Bibliotheca universalis, a vast encyclopedia in which he listed alphabetically all of the authors, who had written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, with a listing of all their books printed up to that time. This work made Gessner famous, and offers of scholarly employment poured in, including one from the Fuggers, the richest family of Europe. However, the offer provided by the famous bankers attached the condition that Gessner must embrace Catholicism, which he refused. Thereafter, he spent the rest of his life as a practicing physician at Zurich, leaving only for short expeditions to study flora and fauna.

Gessner also wrote Mithridates de differentis linguis (1555), an account of approximately 130 different languages. In addition, he wrote voluminously about plants, although most of his botanical works were published posthumously. His magnum opus, however, was the Historiae animalium ("Accounts of Animals", 1551–1558 and 1587), a 4,500-page encyclopedia of animals, now regarded as the starting point of modern zoology. It was also the first printed work to include illustrations of fossils. Gessner attempted to list and to describe all of the world's animals in most possible detail. He tried not only to give an account of animals as denizens of the natural world, but moreover also to convey their place within literary tradition. There are many anecdotes, and the names of animals are given in various languages. Knowledge derived from ancient sources, in particular Aristotle, Pliny, Aelian, and the Old Testament, was combined with folklore and with information from medieval scholars such as Albertus Magnus. Thus, the book contains many accounts of mythical creatures, too. For example, the basilisk and the unicorn are discussed alongside real animals such as foxes or porcupines. One of the major achievements of Gessner lies in his new emphasis on observation and accurate description that had been lacking in the works of earlier scientists, who largely accepted whatever had been passed on to them from the ancient and authoritative sources.

Conrad Gesner received an imperial patent of nobility in 1564. In his manifold works, Gesner canbe recognized as one of the most versatile and productive scholars of Switzerland, who distinguished himself in many areas of science. In 1565 the plague, which has been identified from Gesner's description as a form of pulmonary bubonic, came to Zurich, and on December 13 he passed away.

At yovisto we unfortunately don't have videos directly related to Conrad Gessner and his work. Nevertheless you can learn more about Conrad Gessner's epoch of Renaissance art and knowledge in the lecture of Prof. Joseph Leo Koerner on 'Art as Knowledge: The Unspeakable Subject of Hieronymus Bosch'.

References and Further Reading:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Christiaan Huygens and the Discovery of Saturn Moon Titan

Saturn Moon Titan (lower left) in comparison to the Earth and it's Moon
Image by NASA
On March 25, 1655, Saturn's largest moon Titan was discovered by astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens. Titan is considered as the most Earth-like moon discovered so far and the second largest in the solar system.

Christiaan Huygens was born into an influential family and provided with a decent education all his life, leaning several foreign languages mathematics, logic, and rethoric. His father was friends with Galileo Galilei and René Descartes who early noticed the talents of the young Huygens. He studied mathematics and law at the University of Leiden and later on continued his research at the College of Orange in Breda.

In the field of mathematics and physics, Huygens wrote several publications on probability theory, worked on the law of motion, and became well known for his wave theory of light from 1678. Further achievements were made by the scientists in optics and through designing various clocks like the pendulum clock in 1657.

In the mid-17th century, Christiaan Huygens proposed his theory that the planet Saturn was surrounded by a 'thin, flat ring, nowhere touching, and inclined to the ecliptic' after using his self designed 50 power refracting telescope. With the help of his brother, Huygens built several telescopes, but Titan was discovered with their first one. In 1655, he published his findings and named the moon simply 'Saturni Luna'. After Giovanni Cassini twenty years later found further moons orbiting Saturn, the moons were named 'Saturn I - V'. After all Saturn moons were discovered, John Herschel suggested to name it finally Titan.

As current research results suggest, Titan consists of several layers with a hot center. Due to the existence of ammonia it is possible that there are still liquid layers of magma. Special on Titan is also his thick atmosphere known to be rotating much faster than its surface. Despite the temperatures of about -179°C on the surface, the moon is known to experience wind as well as rain, creating a surface very similar to Earth's. Many scientists believe that microbial extraterrestrial life could be possible on the satellite.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture on the rivers, lakes and possible life conditions on Titan by Dr. Chris McKay.


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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Frederick the Great and the Potato

Frederick the Great of Prussia examines the potato harvest (1886)
On 24, March, 1756, Prussian king Frederick the Great passed the circular order that should ensure the cultivation and deployment of potatoes in his country. Actually, citizens received this only rather refusing, because this subterranean vegetable seemed rather suspicious to them. But there is the saying that the king used a clever trick to convince his subjects...

Originally, wild potato species occur throughout the Americas, from the United States to southern Chile with its origins in the area of present-day southern Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia, where they were domesticated 7,000–10,000 years ago. It has since spread around the world and become a staple crop in many countries. Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. In 1552 Spanish historian and secretary of Hernan Cortez, Francisco López de Gómara, referenced the potato first in his chronicle 'Historia general de las Indias'. Although he himself never visited the Americas, he remarked that the inhabitants of the Colloa Altiplano near the Lake Titicacaof the Peruanian Andes were living on on corn and papas, i.e. potatos, and that they would become hundred years and older. Slowly adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom.

In Prussia it should take until the mit 18th century until the potato was finally adopted as nutrition. There it was Frederick the Great who was responsible for its first extensive deployment. He saw the potato's potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but faced the challenge of overcoming the people's prejudice against the plant. He coined also the popular phrase 'Potatoes instead of Truffles!' and besides his famous military campaigns he also launched a propaganda campaign for the subterranean field crop. And for both campaigns his army was playing a major part to become a success. But the royal order alone did not succeed with his stubborn subjects who refused to eat the subterranean bulbs. In Prussia as in the rest of Germany there was the saying: 'Was der Bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht. [What the peasant doesn't know, he will not eat]'. Actually, the town of Kolberg officially replied to the king's order: "The things [potatoes] have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?"

Therefore, he came up with a cunning plan. There is the saying that he had cultivated first potato fields around the area of Berlin and ordered his army to rigorously guard the fields against any thefts. At least this was he was making his subjects to believe. In fact, Frederick ordered his army not to take care too much and to look away or to pretend sleeping. Therefore, the king's subjects became suspicious that the field fruits must be rather precious to be guarded so strictly. And in the end, the subjects tried to steel the potatoes whenever the soldiers pretended to be distracted or unobservant. And this exactly the king originally had in mind.

I'm living in the neighborhood of Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, where also King Frederick the Great has his last resting place at the terrace of the vineyard at Sanssouci. There, he has a small gravestone with his name written on it. And besides some flowers, you will always find a few potatoes laying there as a reminiscence regarding his role during the introduction of the subterranean field fruit in Germany.

At yovisto you can learn more about potatoes in the lecture by Walter De Jong of Cornell University's Department of Plant Breeding on successful strategies for growing potatoes in a variety of conditions entitled "The Complete Book of Potatoes".

References and Further Reading:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Emmy Noether and the Love for Mathematics

Emmy Noether
(1882 - 1935)
On April 23, 1882, German mathematician and physicist Emmy Noether was born, who is best known for her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Albert Einstein called her the most important woman in the history of mathematics, as she revolutionized the theories of rings, fields, and algebras.

In 1900, Emmy Noether decided to enroll at the University of Erlangen, but as one of two women at the institution, she was only allowed to audit her classes instead of really participating in them. Noether also finished her graduation at a grammar school in Nuremberg three years later. While restrictions were hard on studying women in Erlangen, Noether attended lectures of famous scientists like Karl Schwarzschild or David Hilbert in Göttingen. After returning to Erlangen, she was allowed to finally study mathematics and taught at the universities' mathematical institute without payment after her graduation.

David Hilbert had to put great effort into getting Emmy Noether into Göttingen University as privatdozent. Eventually she was allowed to teach at the university despite her sex, but still without any payment. In these years, she proved the Noether theorem one of the most important contributions to the field of mathematics since the Pythagorean theorem, as many of her male colleagues noted. Noether enjoyed a great reputation and delivered her habilitation lecture in 1919 but was not given any salary for her work until 1924 when Noether was appointed a special teaching position in algebra.

A great part in the development of abstract algebra was achieved in the 20th century and Emmy Noether depicted a major influence on the topic with several papers and lectures. Beginning with the year 1920, Noether began publishing works on the ideal theory, defining left and right ideals as a ring followed by another publication, analyzing ascending chain conditions. After these works, Noether had many supporters in the scientific community and several mathematical terms were named after her. During the lectures she gave at university, Noether gave up regular lesson plans and rather used the time for intense discussions, bringing her research forward. Some students paid lots of respects to her methods, others were rather frustrated.

After a long friendship with the mathematician Pavel Alexandrov, Noether decided to continue her work at the Moscow State University in 1928 for some time. There she critically contributed to the development of Galois theory. Emmy Noether's achievements are numerous. And even though she received several awards for her works she was still not promoted to being a full professor at the university, which caused much frustration along her colleagues who dearly respected her achievements and her personality.

In 1933, Emmy Noether received the same letter as many of her Jewish colleagues. She was expelled from her position at the University of Göttingen due to the new Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. However, she continued her lectures on class field theory secretly in her apartment until starting her job at the University of Oxford and later the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Emmy Noether passed away on April 14, 1935. At her memorial, many notable mathematicians and friend's of Noether like Pavel Alexandrov, Bryn Mawr or Herman Weyl paid their respects.

 At yovisto you may enjoy a Google Tech Talk by Dr. Ransom Stephens on 'Emmy Noether and The Fabric of Reality'.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Nathan Rosen on Wormholes and a Thought Experiment

Artist impression of a Schwarzschild wormhole
On March 22, 1909, US-American physicist Nathan Rosen was born. He is best known for his cooperation together with Albert Einstein and Boris Podolsky on the quantum-mechanical description of physical reality leading the the so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradoxon, as well as his postulation of worm holes connecting distant areas in space. Although purely theoretic, his work also had an important impact on science fiction literature.

Nathan Rosen was born in New York City and attended MIT, earning the bachelor's degree in electromechanical engineering and his master's and doctorate in physics. During his time at the University, Rosen already published several papers on the explanation of an atomic nucleus' structure and on wave functions.

Rosen started his assistance job to Albert Einstein in 1935, extending Einstein's studies on wave functions, resulting in a publication together with Boris Podolsky. In the paper, the three scientists attempted to answer the question “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?". The effects were then named the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox (RPR). The ERP paradox contains a thought experiment, attempting to reveal insufficiencies of quantum mechanics and indeed they at least proved the research on quantum mechanics at this state was incomplete.

After working for Einstein, Rosen was suggested to continue his work in Israel. Both scientists began focusing on wormholes after discovering a mathematical method for wormholes able to connect certain areas in space. These Einstein-Rosen bridges were found by mating the mathematical solutions of black holes and white holes through using Einstein's field equations from 1915. The Einstein-Rosen bridges, also called Schwarzschild wormholes were completely theoretical, but John A. Wheeler and Robert W. Fuller proved these wormholes in 1962 to be unstable.

However, wormholes not only fascinated scientists, also science fiction writers increased their interest in them. Numerous writers in literature, television and films used and still use wormholes to transport whole star ships or travel through time as in Star Trek's movie from 2009 in which Spock and Nero use (fictional) red matter to build artificial black holes and travel back in time. Contrary to physics, there are no limits in science fiction and even in Star Trek, a completely stable wormhole near the planet Bajor can be found, unique also in the Star Trek universe. A notable science fiction novel is also 'The Forever War' by Joe Haldeman from 1974. In the plot, interstellar travel is possible through collapsars, another word for black holes. The plot is leaned on the theory by Einstein and Rosen, claiming that there may be bridges located in the black holes.

But coming back to Nathan Rosen; he determined the last years of his career mostly to teaching at the University of Kiev and the University of North Carolina. Rosen then moved to Israel, where he taught at the Technion in Hafia and founded the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Dr Sean Carroll on 'The Paradoxes of Time Travel', discussing the idea of wormholes connecting distant regions of space and exploring the logical structure of time travel. Dr Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology as a theoretical cosmologist specializing in dark energy and general relativity.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Joseph Fourier and the Greenhouse Effect

Jean Baptiste Joseph Baron du Fourier
On March 21, 1768, French mathematician and physicist Jean Baptiste Joseph Baron de Fourier was born. He is probably best known for his work in thermodynamics, where he introduced the concept of the Fourier Analysis, named in honor after him. There, he claimed that every mathematical function of a variable can be expanded to a sum of sines of multiples of that variable. What people most likely don't know is that Fourier also was the first to describe the greenhouse effect, which is responsible also for global warming.

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier was born on March 21, 1768, in a modest family at Auxerre, France, as the son of a tailor. Orphaned already at age nine, Fourier was recommended to the Bishop of Auxerre, and through this introduction, he was educated by the Benvenistes of the Convent of St. Mark. While he showed an aptitude and flair for literature, this was overshadowed by mathematics, a subject he found himself really interested in at age thirteen. He proceeded to the École Royale Militaire, followed by taking admission in the Benedictine abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire to prepare for priesthood. However, simultaneously he achieved first merits in mathematics and became rather uncertain, whether to continue his efforts towards priesthood. Military commissions in the scientific corps of the army on the other hand were reserved for those of good birth, and being thus ineligible, he accepted a military lectureship on mathematics at the Benedictine college, École Royale Militaire. Now, he also became involved in politics by taking a prominent part in his own district in promoting the French Revolution, serving on the local Revolutionary Committee. He was imprisoned briefly during the Terror in 1794, but in 1795 was appointed to study at the École Normale Supérieure, a teacher-training school set up for training teachers, and subsequently succeeded Joseph-Louis Lagrange at the École Polytechnique.

Fourier went with Napoleon Bonaparte on his Egyptian expedition in 1798 as scientific advisor, and was made governor of Lower Egypt and secretary of the Institut d'Égypte. Through the help of Fourier, Napoleon set up French type political institutions and administration. Cut off from France by the English fleet, Fourier organized the workshops on which the French army had to rely for their munitions of war. He also contributed several mathematical papers to the Egyptian Institute which Napoleon founded at Cairo, with a view of weakening English influence in the East. After the British victories and the capitulation of the French in 1801, Fourier returned to France with the remains of the expeditionary force and resumed his post as Professor of Analysis at the École Polytechnique. However Napoleon had other ideas about how Fourier might serve him. He wrote
... the Prefect of the Department of Isère having recently died, I would like to express my confidence in citizen Fourier by appointing him to this place.
Fourier was not happy at the prospect of leaving the academic world in Paris, but could not refuse Napoleon's request. He went to Grenoble where his duties as Prefect were manifold. His two greatest achievements in this administrative position were overseeing the operation to drain the swamps of Bourgoin and supervising the construction of a new highway from Grenoble to Turin. He also spent much time contributing to the monumental 'Description de l'Égypte' which was not completed until 1810 when Napoleon made changes, rewriting history in places, to it before publication. It was during his time in Grenoble that Fourier did his important mathematical work on the theory of heat. His work on the topic began around 1804 and by 1807 he had completed his important memoir On the Propagation of Heat in Solid Bodies. Based on Newton’s law of cooling, Fourier interpreted that the flow of heat between two adjacent molecules is directly proportional to the extremely small difference of their temperatures. Somehow, Fourier was obsessed with heat. keeping his rooms uncomfortably hot for visitors, while also wearing a heavy coat himself. Some as it is sayed trace back this eccentricity to his 3 years in Egypt.

In 1814, Fourier was placed in a tricky position, when Napoleon abdicated and set out for Elba with every likelihood of passing southward through Grenoble. To greet his old master would jeopardize his standing with the new king Louis XVIII and thus, Fourier influenced the choice of a changed route and kept his job. Unfortunately, Napoleon reappeared in France again in the very next year, this time marching north through Grenoble where he fired Fourier. However, 3 days later Fourier was appointed Prefect of the Rhone, thus surviving two changes of regime - but of course only for 100 days before the king was back in control and Napoleon was on his way to St. Helena, never to return. Finally, Fourier moved back to Paris and back to enter scientific life again, being elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1817. In 1823, he became its permanent secretary and in 1826 also for the Académie Francaise. But, Fourier’s health started deteriorating in 1830. While he had already experienced attacks of aneurism of the heart when he was in Egypt and Grenoble, it was in Paris that the problem of suffocation became worse. A fall from the stairs on May 4, 1830, further aggravated the malady and a few days later, on May 16, 1830 Fourier passed away.

One of his lesser known legacies is the discovery of the greenhouse effect. In the 1820s Fourier calculated that an object the size of the Earth, and at its distance from the Sun, should be considerably colder than the planet actually is if warmed by only the effects of incoming solar radiation. He examined various possible sources of the additional observed heat. But, while he ultimately suggested that interstellar radiation might be responsible for a large portion of the additional warmth, his alternative consideration of the possibility that the Earth's atmosphere might act as an insulator of some kind is widely recognized as the first proposal of what is now known as the greenhouse effect. Referring to an experiment conducted by Horace-Benedicte de Saussure, Fourier suggested that gases in the atmosphere could form a stable barrier like the glass panes.

Also, when Fourier returned from Egypt in 1801 with many artifacts found on the Napoleon expedition, he also had an ink pressed copy of the Rosetta Stone with him, which he happened to introduce to Jean Francois Champollion, who should become the man who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs with the help of the Rosetta stone. But this is already another story…..

At yovisto you can learn more about the Fourier series in mathematics with the lecture of Prof. Gilbert Strang from MIT.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Alessandro Volta and the Electricity

Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)
On March 20, 1800, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta informed the British Royal Society in London about his newly invented electric power source, the Voltaic pile, the first energy source technology capable of producing a steady, continuous flow of electricity.

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was born on February 18, 1745, in in Como, Italy, into a noble family. He resisted pressure from his family to enter the priesthood and developed instead an intense curiosity about natural phenomena, in particular, electricity. Being educated in public schools, he became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como in 1774. A year later, he improved and popularized the electrophorus, an instrument that produced charges of static electricity. Unlike earlier source of electric potential, such as the Leyden jar, the electrophorus provided a sustained, easily replenishable source of static electricity.

In 1776–78, Volta studied the chemistry of gases and discovered methane after reading a paper by Benjamin Franklin on "flammable air". 1776, he found methane at Lake Maggiore and by 1778 he managed to isolate the gas. Volta then studied what we now call electrical capacitance, developing separate means to study both electrical potential and charge. He was able to show that for a given object, electrical potential and charge are proportional, what is also called Volta's Law of capacitance. Moreover, it seems likely that for this work the unit of electrical potential has been named the volt later in 1881. In 1779 he became a professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia, where he stayed for almost 25 years.

In 1800 as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Luigi Galvani that led Volta to build the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, to prove that electricity did not come from the animal tissue - the so-called 'animal electricity' proposed by Luigi Galvani - but was generated by the contact of different metals, brass and iron, in a moist environment. Ironically, both scientists were right. Also interesting to note is that Volta described his battery as an electric organ and likened it to the electric organ of the torpedo fish, which had columnar stacks of cells.

Volta announced his discovery in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society of London. The letter, dated March 20, 1800, created an instant sensation. For the very first time, there was a technology capable of producing a steady, continuous flow of electricity. All previous electrical machines, including Volta's electrophorus, had produced only short bursts of static electricity. The ability to create at will a sustained electrical current opened vast new fields for investigation, and the significance of Volta's discovery was immediately recognized. The battery made by Volta is credited as the first electrochemical cell. It consists of two electrodes: one made of zinc, the other of copper. The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water or a form of saltwater brine.

In honor of his work, Alessandro Volta was ennobled a count by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801 and was made a senator of the kingdom of Lombardy. At the urging of Napoleon, he continued to teach at the University of Pavia and eventually became director of the philosophy faculty there. Finally, Volta retired in 1819 in his family home at Como, where died on March 5, 1827, not realizing that electricity would change the world ever after.

At yovisto you can learn more about batteries in the lecture of Prof. Kristie A. Boering on 'Energizer Bunny: Batteries' from the Chemistry course at Berkeley.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Adventures of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton
(1821 – 1890)
On March 19, 1821, Sir Richard Francis Burton, British geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat, was born. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures, among them also his journey together with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Since Burton's father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British army, his family got to travel quite alot during his childhood. His parents provided Burton a decent education first by tutors, later by enrolling their son at a formal school. The young Richard Burton enjoyed studying languages and before attending Trinity College at Oxford, he already knew around 5 foreign languages. Burton was known to be very intelligent, but his many provocations and rule violations got him expelled from college, wherefore Burton enlisted in the army of the East India Company in 1842. The time at the Army was very influential to Burton's later life as an explorer, not only because he learned the Indian culture and religions but also because he learned how to use various measuring instruments.

Thirsty for more adventures, Richard Francis Burton left for the journey that made him famous. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Not many of non-Muslim Europeans have done this before and Burton prepared for this adventure with studies of the Muslim traditions and habits carefully. This trip was dangerous since he could not be discovered as a 'non believer', but he returned safely with the most detailed documentation of the Hajj ever published in Europe in the 19th century.

Burton was now widely known for his skills and knowledge wherefore the Royal Geographical Society supported another exploration to Somalia and beyond to discover places no European had seen before. John Hanning Speke joined the adventurer after three months but unfortunately, the group was attacked by Somali warriors, killing many of their crew, capturing Speke, who was later able to escape and wounding Burton. Burton, now scarred for his life time was partly blamed for the disaster, which was later proven wrong. Still, this trip depicted a great crack to his career and reputation. The resulting publication 'First Footsteps in East Africa' was published in 1856.

Despite the difficulties of the last expedition, the Royal Geographical Society financed Burton another expedition to find possible export resources in Africa and to discover the source of the River Nile. He was again joined by Speke. A milestone during the expedition was the arrival at Lake Tanganyika. Unfortunately, Speke was due to a disease temporally blind and unable to enjoy the beauty of the lake as Burton described in 'Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa', published in 1860. Later on it was Burton, who suffered from illnesses, wherefore Speke discovered Lake Victoria by himself, which he thought of as the source of River Nile. After the journey, the two explorers faced several disagreements and began harming each other's reputations. Their most discussed topic was the source of the Nile River and since Speke died by accidentally shooting himself, they never solved their issues. 20 years after their journey, Burton admitted to have been wrong in the dispute with Speke considering the Nile.

In the following years, Burton entered the Foreign Service as consul and explored West Africa's coast, he traveled through Brazil and was later occupied in Damascus due to his high knowledge of the local culture. In the 1860's he founded the Anthropological Society of London, aiming to "supply travelers with an organ that would rescue their observations from the outer darkness of manuscript and print their curious information on social and sexual matters". Burton used the last years of his active work years publishing several traveling books that were well discussed due to controversial content, listed as pornographic by officials. Richard Francis Burton was knighted in 1886 by Queen Victoria herself and passed away four years later in Trieste.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a documentary, retracing Sir Richard Francis Burton's and John Hanning Speke's search for the source of the Nile River.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Rudolf Diesel and his famous Engine

Rudolf Diesel
(1858 - 1913)
On March 18, 1858, German inventor and mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel was born, who invented the eponymous Diesel engine that uses the heat of compression to initiate ignition to burn the fuel.

Rudolf Diesel was born and grew up in Paris, known as an excellent student and awarded with a medal for his achievements at the age of only 12. Unfortunately, the Franco-Prussian War started in July 1870, wherefore all German citizens were expelled from France. The Diesel family left along with many other families Paris for London. Just a few months later, the young Diesel was sent to his relatives in Augsburg, where his father grew up. His uncle and aunt from then on took care of the boy, who soon after attending the industry and business related school his uncle taught at, decided to become an engineer himself. He finished school as the best of his class and enrolled at the Technical University of Munich, also shining with his brilliance. During his time at the University, Diesel gained practical experience at engineering works in Switzerland.

A great influence to Diesel depicted Carl von Linde, a German engineer responsible for developing refrigeration and gas separation technologies in the mid 19th and early 20th century. Linde was one of Diesel's professors in Munich and he assisted Linde back in Paris with designs and construction methods of modern refrigeration and ice plants. Already married in the late 19th century, Diesel again left Paris, this time for Berlin to continue the work his former professor. Since he could not use the various patents, previously developed, Rudolf Diesel moved his field of research beyond refrigeration to work with steam. However, several experiments and a great explosion later, Diesel spent some time in the hospital, rethinking his methods.

In the early 1820's, Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot demonstrated the famous 'Carnot cycle', a theoretical thermodynamic cycle that shows the efficient cycle for converting an amount of thermal energy into work or creating a difference in temperature. Rudolf Diesel began designing an engine based on this principle. In 1886, Karl Benz patented the motor car and a few years later, in 1893, Diesel published his work 'Theorie und Konstruktion eines rationellen Wärmemotors zum Ersatz der Dampfmaschine und der heute bekannten Verbrennungsmotoren [Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today]', a milestone for the engineer on his way to develop the Diesel engine. Diesel was always longing for efficiency, and due to the fact that the steam engine wasted about 90% of the energy available in the fuel, he was even more driven to find his own solution. At one point he eventually managed to patent the design for his compression-ignition engine. Diesel was allowed to perform a series of tests on his machines at the MAN AG in Augsburg, Germany.

Even though the Diesel engine as known by the inventor himself has been furtherly developed through the years, the heavy engine was soon used in submarines, ships, locomotives, trucks, and automobiles. The first Diesel engined ship 'Seelandia' left the port of Copenhagen in 1912. Rudolf Diesel proved himself as a brilliant engineer and inventor during his whole life time, but he never really was as great in business relations. Under mysterious circumstances, Rudolf Diesel passed away on September 29, 1913. There are various theories to explain Diesel's death. His biographers present a case for suicide, and clearly consider it most likely. Conspiracy theories suggest that various people's business or military interests may have provided motives for homicide, however. Evidence is limited for all explanations.

At yovisto you may enjoy a video lecture on what has become an important part of the Diesel engine's development, the Carnot Cycle

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