Saturday, November 30, 2013

Otto von Guericke and the Horror of Vacuum

Caspar Schott's illustation of the vacuum experiment
On November 30, 1602, German scientist, inventor, and politician Otto von Guericke was born. One of his major scientific achievements was the establishment of the physics of vacuums, which he gave proof of in a very famous public experiment.

Otto von Guericke enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1617 and continued his studies in law and engineering later on in Helmstedt, Jena, and Leiden. In the 1630s, von Guericke worked as an engineer to rebuild the cities of Erfurt and Magdeburg. He was even voted mayor of Madgeburg and took part in the negotiations during the Peace of Westphalia. Soon, von Guericke increased his interest in science and found most fun in the fields of astronomy and pneumatics, for which he became famous in later years. He started corresponding with the Professor for philosophy and mathematics at the University of Würzburg.

Von Guericke's first work in Mechanica hydraulico-pneumatica was published in 1657 by Caspar Schott. Another possible publication followed in 1663, when he finished his manuskripts on Experimenta nova, but he never brought it to the printer. Only in 1672 he managed to print this famous work. The famous and admired Otto von Guericke moved to Hamburg when the plague arrived in Magdeburg, where he passed away in 1686.

Otto von Guericke's scientific achievements are numerous. In 1649, he invented the vacuum pump in order to research the characteristics of partial vacuums in a variety of experiments and built several applications, like a pneumatic weapon with which he demonstrated that light could get through a vaccum but sound couldn't. Von Guericke used to demonstrate his findings through very spectacular experiments. In 1657, he took two big hemispheres (better known as Magdeburg hemispheres) made of copper, put them together and pumped the air out of the construction. Eight horses were then connected to either side in order to take the pieces apart but it was hopeless. When he let the air back inside, the hemispheres fell apart by themselves. With those spectacular events, von Guericke was able to proof what Blaise Pascal has already predicted. He once said that matter enters the vacuum and not the other way around.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short demostation of Otto von Guericke's famous vacuum experiment by Russel Zeid.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)
On November 29, 1898, English novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis aka C.S. Lewis was born. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and is best known for his fictional work, especially The Chronicles of Narnia. Actually, since his childhood days, was was usually referred to as 'Jack' and not 'Clive'.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, to Albert James Lewis, a solicitor, and Florence Augusta Lewis, the daughter of an Anglican priest. At the age of four, shortly after his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, he announced that his name was now Jacksie, which later was turned into Jack for the rest of his life. As a boy, Lewis had a fascination with anthropomorphic animals, falling in love with Beatrix Potter's stories about tales of Peter Rabbit and often writing and illustrating his own animal stories. Also his nurse Lizzie told Jacksie and his older brother Irish fairy stories, about 'little people'.

Lewis was first taught at home, when his mother Florence became ill and died soonafter, when Lewis was 10. His father sent him to boarding school in England, which was horrid, and soon closed. After a short interlude in Belfast, Lewis was sent back to England to a school in Malvern, Worcestershire, together with his brother. World War I began in 1914. In 1916 Lewis went to Oxford University and one year later he volunteered to be a soldier. Lewis arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France on his nineteenth birthday and experienced trench warfare. On 15 April 1918, Lewis was wounded and two of his colleagues were killed by a British shell falling short of its target. Upon his recovery he was assigned to duty in Andover, England and was demobilized in December 1918 to return to his studies.
"The Value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity." (C. S. Lewis, a review on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)
After his graduation from Oxford University with a focus on literature and classic philosophy, he became a philosophy tutor at University College in 1924 and one year later was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, where he served for 29 years until 1954, when he moved to Cambridge University. During his period of convalescence from war injuries he became increasingly friendly with Mrs Jane Moore - the mother of a close army friend Edward 'Paddy' Moore, who was killed in battle and to whom he had promised to look after his mother. Lewis lived with and cared for Moore from June 1921 onward until she was hospitalized in the late 1940s. At Magdalen College, Lewis also joined the group known as The Inklings, an informal collective of writers and intellectuals who counted among their members Lewis's brother, Warren Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was through conversations with group members that Lewis at age 33 found himself re-embracing Christianity after having become disillusioned with the faith as a youth. For him, this was the most important moment in his life. He would go on to become renowned for his rich apologist texts, where he explained his spiritual beliefs via platforms of logic and philosophy. At the meetings of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien read bits from a story he was writing, which should later become famous as The Lord of the Rings. Lewis concentrated on a more universal form of Christianity seeking to avoid the sectarianism that was common in his native Northern Ireland. He rarely made any specific reference to a particular denomination of Christianity but sought to reinforce the underlying Christian values shared by all Christian faiths. However, he always remained an Anglican, and to the disappointment of Tolkien, he never converted to Roman Catholicism.
"My Dear Lucy,  wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." (Dedication of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe')
Book cover of the first edition of
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Lewis began publishing work in the mid-1920s with his first book, the satirical Dymer (1926). After several other titles - including The Allegory of Love (1936), for which he won the Hawthornden Prize - he released in 1938 his first science fiction work, Out of the Silent Planet, the first of a trilogy which dealt sub-textually with concepts of sin and desire. During the 1950s, Lewis started to publish the seven books that would comprise The Chronicles of Narnia children's series, with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) being the first release. The story focused on four siblings who, during wartime, walk through an armoire to enter the magical world of Narnia, a land resplendent with mythical creatures and talking animals. Different parts of the series represented a variety of Biblical themes. One prominent character is Aslan, a lion and the ruler of Narnia, who has also been interpreted as a Jesus Christ figure. In addition to Christian themes, Lewis also borrows characters from Greek and Roman mythology as well as traditional British and Irish fairy tales.

In 1961, Lewis became ill and quit teaching at Cambridge. He died at home in 1963 one week before his 65th birthday from renal failure on same day as the assassination of J.F. Kennedy. Newspapers and TV were full of news of the shooting, while the death of the 'Narnia' writer was hardly noticed. Since his death, his books and influence have continued to grow. His Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 100 million copies in 41 languages. It has been adapted several times, complete or in part, for radio, television, stage and cinema. Lewis has been rated as one of the top English writers of all time and his books have been translated into numerous languages.

At yovisto you can learn more about C.S. Lewis and his work in the lecture of Revd Prof. Alistair McGrath from St Paul's Sunday Forum on 'C. S. Lewis: Reluctant Prophet'.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge

Burlington House, where the Society was based between 1873 and 1967
On November 28, 1660, at Gresham College, London, UK, 12 men, including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, and Sir Robert Moray decide to found what is later known as the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a learned society for science, and possibly the oldest such society still in existence.

It is said that everything started with Francis Bacon and his work "New Atlantis", published in 1624. The Latin novel illustrated the possible future of scientific discoveries and knowledge, which inspired several groups of scientists including philosophers and physicians, who met at several places, often Gresham College in London, to discuss their ideas and achievements. The formation of a "College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning" was announced on 28 November, 1660, which marked the beginning of the Royal Society. The 12 men announced to be meeting every week, which was apporoved by the King. The term Royal Society evolved about two years later, when a Royal Charter was signed with Lord Brouncker serving at its very first president. Soon, Robert Hooke was made responsible for curating the experiments taking place at the society.

At first, Robert Hooke performed the experiments himself and covered various scientific fields, while others translated scientific articles in English. They met usually at Gresham College, but relocated for a while after the Great Fire in 1666. Durign the presidency of Isaac Newton, they received their own institution in Crane Court. In the meantime, the society started gathering books for a small library that rapidly grew. The first two books published were John Evelyn's "Sylva" and Robert Hooke's "Micrographia". Fellows for the society were elected from the beginning, but there was no official criteria for the elections. Later on in the 1730s, a rule was passed, saying that every elected scientist had to be proposed in a written certificate.

In the 19th century, the Royal Society started giving financial aid to scientists in order to perform their experiments and to most of their research work there. This resulted in a closer relationship between the society and the government, which began establishing a grant system. Still, the Royal Society managed to stay an independent scientific academy. Its present location, the Carlton House Terrace was obtained in 1967 with over 140 staff members.

In the last 350 years, the Royal Society had recruited and supported numerous scientists who contributed to Europe's scientific development significantly. In the yovisto blog, you might have read for instance that Humphry Davy once reported about the isolation of potassium and sodium from different salts by electrolysis to the Royal Society and that the famous physicist and chemist Michael Faraday was voted into the Society in 1824.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a more detailed explanation on the founding of the Royal Society by Professor Michael Hunter at Gresham College.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Georg Forster - Naturalist and Revolutionary

Forster and his father at Tahiti
On November 27, 1754, German naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer, journalist, and revolutionary Georg Forster was born. At an early age, he accompanied his father on several scientific expeditions, including James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific. His most famous work 'A Voyage Round the World' is considered as the beginning of modern scientific travel literature, which also made him a member of the famous Royal Society.

At only 10 years of age, Georg Forster was taken to journeys around the world, beginning with a tour to the Volga. The young boy was already part of the scientific experiments, performed during their stay and learned speaking Russian fluently. The family moved to London in 1766, where Georg studied English and even published his first translation of a book on the Russian history in English. Due to his father's great scientific reputation, he was asked by James Cook to join his second voyage, and of course, young Georg should not miss this journey either. His father was supposed to make scientific reports during and after the expedition and his son was taken with as an illustrator. The adventure lasted three years and together, they explored New Zealand, Tahiti, and New Caledonia and proceeded towards the south as far as no explorer did before them. Father and son enjoyed discovering the flora and fauna together, finding several new species of which one was even named after them. But even though the young explorer Forster knew much about botany, he developed a greater interest in ethnology. Quickly, he studied the Polynesian languages and described their life standards and believes as detailed as no one could before. Even until this day, his descriptions are read and studied. Critics often admired his works, because Forster used to differ the societies of the South Pacific in their religious views, living conditions and social orders in contrast to earlier studies. On this day, some of his ethnographic findings from the Cook expedition are displayed in Göttingen, Germany.

Back home, Georg Forster immediately started writing his famous book 'A Voyage Round the World', which was published in 1778. The work depicted a great milestone in the history of literature and marked the beginning of modern scientific travel books. Forster became famous and his work counts up to this day as one of the most read and most influential travel descriptions. His influence reached as far as Alexander von Humboldt, who deeply admired Forster and later became famous for his travel literature himself. Forster's writing style was known to be scientific exact as well as exciting and fascinating with numerous philosophical reflexions.

Cook's Second Voyage
Due to his fame and his enormous reputation, the 23 year old Georg Forster became a member of the Royal Society. He moved back to Germany and started teaching in Kassel, where he enjoyed the exchange of knowledge with important figures of the German Enlightenment, Kant, Lessing and Goethe. He kept publishing further influential books and started working on his dissertation on botany. In 1790, he started a journey around Europe with the about 20 year old Alexander von Humboldt. His scientific works published during and after the journey were again read often and he received admiring letters from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

During the political uproars in these years, Forster moved to Paris and could not return to Germany. Georg Forster passed away in January 1794 in Paris, suffering from pneumonia. Due to his commitment to the French Revolution, many of his scientific works were forgotten shortly after his death. The German Democratic Republic then started to honor the scientists once in a while, bringing his achievements and discoveries back to people's minds. On this day, his reputation as a brilliant ethnologist and his ability to establish ethnology as a stand alone scientific field in Germany is undeniable.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the Georg Forster lecture on 'The Aesthetics of Singularity: Time and Event in Postmodernity' by Frederic Jameson.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ferdinand de Saussure and the Study of Language

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)
On November 26, 1857, Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure was born. His ideas laid the foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiotics in the 20th century. Moreover, de Saussure is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics and together with Charles Sanders Peirce one of two major fathers of semiotics.

Ferdinand de Saussure enrolled at the University of Geneva and started his graduate work at Leipzig in 1876. Already in 1879, the young scientist published a dissertation on the "Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages". Due to his research on the field, he is next to August Schleicher and Franz Bobb considered as one of the founders of Indo-European Studies. He reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ablaut system, earning a great reputation. The 'ablaut' is the "ancient system of vowel alternations in the parent language, visible in surviving irregular alternations among cognates like Latin ped vs. Greek pod"[1]. His findings are important in Indo-European studies up to this day.

De Saussure began teaching Sanskrit, Gothic, and Old High German in Paris but eventually, he was offered a position as a professor in Geneva and returned to his home town. Teaching there, his students enjoyed not only his classes but admired him as a scientist and authority. A few years later, de Saussure taught General Linguistics, which ended in 1911. Some of his students in Geneva collected and published de Saussure's ideas and manuscripts. These students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechaye became well known linguistic researchers themselves and also published the book "Cours de Linguistique Generale" which contained many of de Saussure's course contents. The book was a great success and was translated in several languages. The work is now considered as one of the most influential of the 20th century due to the innovative approaches de Saussure risked to take while discussing linguistic phenomena. Also, it was noticed, how consonant the scientist's ideas were with those of Emile Durkheim or Claude Levi-Strauss and de Saussure contributed significantly to the new field of sociology in these years.

Even though Ferdinand de Saussure's theories were updated or extended through the years, he was one of the most important contributors to linguistics of the early 20th century and he taught many how to approach language on a fundamental level.

Ferdinand de Saussure passed away on 22 February 1913.

At yovisto you can learn more about the semiotics movement through the work of its founding theorist, Ferdinand de Saussure in the lecture of Yale Prof Paul Fry on 'Semiotics and Structuralism' from Introduction to Theory of Literature.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Andrew Carnegie - Steel Tycoon and Philanthropist

Andrew Carnegie
(1835 – 1919)
On November 25, 1835, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born. He led the enormous expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century and was also one of the highest profile philanthropists of his era.

Expecting a better life, Andrew Carnegie's family decided to leave Scotland and move to the United States in 1848. Carnegie started working at the age of 13 in Pittsburgh and was able to enjoy the local theater's plays for free, which brought him closer to culture and especially Shakespeare. He worked hard and enjoyed studying at the local library once a week when it was opened for working boys. He got promoted several times and became a telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1853. When he became superintendent, Carnegie learned everything about management, cost control and even started making first investments. When the Civil War started, Carnegie was responsible to keep the railway system running as rebels often tried to cut. Under his supervision, the transportation system enjoyed efficient service and highly contributed in the winning of the Union.

Carnegie Mellon University
The 30 year old Carnegie made some smart investments in these years and devoted all energies to the ironworks trade, mostly in Pittsburgh. In the following years, Carnegie got also busy in the steel industry, which really paid off as well. He adapted the Bessemer process of steel making and therefore made it a lot more efficient. But his goal was not only to make money, Carnegie believed in sharing his fortune with others. He built public libraries to use for free and laboratories in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, Carnegie enjoyed poetry and was befriended with Mark Twain. Carnegie himself wrote rather radical books, like 'Triumphant Democracy', published in 1886. This work caused some controversy in Britain, since it criticized the monarchical system and praised the American industry's achievements.

His last active years in business, Carnegie spent as a philanthropist. Mostly in English speaking countries, Carnegie started building further libraries and schools that he completely equipped. In 1900, he founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, which later merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research. Carnegie gave significant donations in order to built the famous Hooker Telescope in 191.

Andrew Carnegie passed away on August 11, 1919, in Lenox, Massachusetts and his last $30,000,000 was given to foundations, charities, and to pensioners.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the the "Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy Ceremony" in Scotland, honoring Andrew Carnegie and pointing out the importance of philanthropy.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - A Giant in Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
On November 24, 1864, French painter, printmaker, draughtsman and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born. Toulouse-Lautrec – along with Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin – is among the most well-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period. Although you might not be interested in art, for sure you will have heard about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec or you might have seen one of his paintings or famous posters. His artwork about the Fin de Siècle Paris and the demimonde of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge hast become iconic and is part of today's popular culture.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born at the chateau du Bosc in Albi, France, as the firstborn child of Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and his wife Adèle. At the age of eight, Henri went to live with his mother in Paris where he drew first sketches and caricatures in his exercise workbooks. The family quickly realised that Henri's talent lay in drawing and painting. Henri suffered from congenital health conditions sometimes attributed to a family history of inbreeding, also his parents were first cousins. At the age of 13 Henri fractured his right thigh bone and one year later the left. The breaks did not heal properly. His legs ceased to grow, so that as an adult he was extremely short (only 1.37 m). He had developed an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs.

Salon at the Rue des Moulins (1894)
Physically unable to participate in many activities typically enjoyed by men of his age, Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in art. After failing college entrance exams, Henri passed at his second attempt and completed his studies. Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle. During his studies in the studios of the acclaimed portrait painter Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon, Toulouse-Lautrec met Émile Bernard and Van Gogh. With his studies finished, in 1887 he participated in an exposition in Toulouse using the pseudonym "Tréclau", an anagram of the family name 'Lautrec'. From 1889 until 1894, Henri took part in the "Independent Artists' Salon" on a regular basis. He made several landscapes of Montmartre. At this time the cabaret'Moulin Rouge' opened and Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. His mother had left Paris and, though Henri had a regular income from his family, making posters offered him a living of his own. Other artists looked down on the work, but Henri was so aristocratic he did not care. The 'Moulin Rouge' reserved a seat for him and displayed his paintings. Among the well-known works that he painted for the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian nightclubs are depictions of the singer Yvette Guilbert; the dancer Louise Weber, known as the outrageous La Goulue ("The Glutton"), who created the "French Can-Can"; and the much more subtle dancer Jane Avril.

Jane Avril (1893)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec travelled to London making posters and became a friend of famous poet Oscar Wilde. Lautrec was mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, which led him to drown his sorrows in alcohol. In 1893 Lautrec's alcoholism began to take its toll, and as those around him realized the seriousness of his condition there were rumors of a syphilis infection. Toulouse-Lautrec was placed in a sanatorium shortly before his death. He died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis at the family estate in Malromé at the age of 36 in 1901.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec created art that was inseparable from his legendary lifestyle. His style as an artist was influenced by the classical Japanese woodprints which became popular in contemporary art circles in Paris. He excelled at capturing people in their working environment, with the color and the movement of the night-life present but the glamour stripped away. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters promoted Paris' night-life and elevated lithography from the popular medium of advertising to the realm of high art.

At yovisto you can learn more about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin de Siècle Paris in the lecture of Prof. Hollis Clayson from Northwestern University on 'Wicked Paris: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec invents the Fin de Siècle'.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Johannes van der Waals - A Pioneer in the Molecular Sciences

Johannes Diderkik van der Waals
(1837 - 1923)
On November 23, 1837 Dutch theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Johannes Diderik van der Waals was born. He is best known for his work on an equation of state for gases and liquids.

Johannes Diderik van der Waals was the son of a carpenter and could only receive 'advanced primary education', which would later on not be enough to actually enroll at a university. When he was 15, his father expected his son to go into the carpenter business as well but instead, van der Waals decided to become a teacher's apprentice at an elementary school. During this period, he worked hard and continued to educate himself to earn qualifications to become a primary school teacher.

His interest in mathematics and nature sciences grew and van der Waals was able to attend the University of Leiden. Still, he could not enroll as a regular university student, but he was able to take up to four courses a year and eventually became a physics teacher at a school for children of the higher middle class in 1866. Still his problems were the classical languages that van der Waals had never learnt. Fortunately, the minister of education gave him a dispensation from the classical languages and he could finally take the examinations in order to start his doctoral studies in the field of physics and mathematics. In 1873, he defended his doctoral thesis 'On the continuity of the gaseous and liquid state' in which he introduced the concepts of molecular volume and molecular attraction. Through his thesis, Johannes van der Waals was one of the first known scientists to have postulated an intermolecular force, which is now referred to as the 'van der Waals force'.

In 1877, the Municipal University of Amsterdam was founded and van der Waals was appointed first professor of physics there. In this period, the scientist formulated the 'Law of Corresponding States', which highly influenced James Dewar's experiments leading to the liquefaction of hydrogen.  In later years, he was succeeded by his son , who became a theoretical physicist as well. In 1910, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

During his life of simultaneous learning and teaching, Johannes van der Waals made numerous scientific contributions in his fields of study. Especially the field of thermodynamics kept the scientist busy. Important influences in his studies were James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann, Rudolf Clausius and many more. Because of Claudius' earlier works, van der Waals was able to explain the existence of critical temperatures that were observed by Thomas Andrews. Also, van der Waals' dissertation was reviewed by Maxwell in the scientific journal Nature.

If you wonder, how the famous Van der Waals equation works, you may enjoy a short video lecture by Hank Green.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Martin Frobisher and the Northwest Passage

Martin Frobisher
(ca 1539 - 1594)
On November 22, 1594, English seaman and explorer Sir Martin Frobisher passed away. He is best known for his three voyages to the New World to look for the Northwest Passage.

In 1544, Martin Frobisher went to sea the first time and was captured about ten years later by a Portugese crew. In the 1560s, he decided to undertake a journey searching for the Northwest Passage in order to establish a trade route to India and China. Unfortunately, it took more than 5 years to gather the needed funding. In 1576, Frobisher met an English merchant consortium called the Muscovy Company that already sent teams to find the Northeast Passage. The company's director Michael Lok then helped the adventurer to raise the badly needed money. They managed to gather a total of three ships, the Gabriel and Michael, each weighing about 25 tons and another lighter ship. The crew consisted of about 35 men and set sail on 7 June, 1576 . Unfortunately, all ships but the Gabriel got lost due to heavy storms. However, the Gabriel sighted the coast of Labrador very soon. The mouth of Frobisher Bay was reach just shortly after followed by heavy ice storms. Frobisher decided to sail towards the west and made a stop at Baffin Island in 1576. Having met a couple of local Inuits, they made an agreement that the natives would guide the crew through the region. Frobisher gathered a team of five men who were supposed to discover the near region. Unfortunately, the men never returned. The remaining crew sailed back home and even though the journey was in general regarded as fruitless, Frobisher began immediately to raise funds for another travel.

Already one year later, specific plans for the next journey were made. Martin Frobisher was appointed high admiral "of all lands and waters that might be discovered by him". This crew was much bigger. Around 150 men, being miners, soldiers and refiners, sailed towards Frobisher Bay and reached it in July of the same year. The crew collected big loads of ore first and attempts were made to rescue the lost five men from the last mission, but it was hopeless. The crew returned to England in 1577 and was thanked by the queen herself.

As the government was quite happy with the outcome of the second voyage, another, much bigger one was being planned. The goal was to establish a colony of over 100 men and all necessary equipment was supposed to be taken with. This time, 15 vessels were needed and the expedition set sail in 1578. When they arrived, several attempts were made to establish a settlement, but too much dissatisfaction and several disagreements prevented the crew to do so. They reached England in the beginning of October.

In later years, Martin Frobisher took charge of another fleet but was shot in 1594, he passed away on 22 November.

As Martin Frobisher was not the only one trying to find the Northwest Passage, you may be interested in who else traveled his way and what they accomplished. At yovisto, you may enjoy a short video, demonstrating the discovery of the passage.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ceci n'est-ce pas une Pipe

Rene Magritte: La trahison des images (1928/29), source: wikipedia
On November 21, 1898, Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte was born. He became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking images that fall under the umbrella of surrealism. His paintings have become student poster classics and his work challenges observers' preconditioned perceptions of reality. I really like the paintings of Rene Magritte and I always refer to that special one above in my lectures on semantics. Actually there is also another version of the picture showing an apple ant the text 'Ceci n'est pas une pomme'. Usually, I first show the picture of an apple to the students and ask 'What is this?'. Not used to being asked stupid questions in a computer science lectures it usually takes a while until one of the students will give the answer 'an apple'. Then I grab into my bag and present a real apple asking '...and what is this?'. Now the students are kind of surprised, and this is the starting point to talk about signs, language, semiotics, cognition, and semantics. But let's get back to Rene Magritte and his work.

Rene Magritte: The Portrait (1935)
source: wikipedia
René Magritte was born in 1898, in the Belgian province of Hainaut, Lessines as the eldest son of Léopold Magritte, a tailor and textile merchant. Little is known about Magritte's early life. At age 11 he began lessons in drawing and two years later in 1912, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself, which was not her first attempt at taking her own life. According to a legend, 13-year-old Magritte was present when her body was retrieved from the water, but recent research has discredited this story, which may have originated with the family nurse. When his mother was found, her dress was covering her face, an image that has been suggested as the source of several of Magritte's paintings in 1927–1928 of people with cloth obscuring their faces.

Magritte's earliest paintings were Impressionistic in style, one year before he started to studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1916. But Magritte found the instruction rather uninspiring. The paintings he produced during the years 1918–1924 were influenced by Futurism. Most of his works of this period are female nudes.

In 1922, Magritte married Georgette Berger, whom he had met as a child in 1913. From December 1920 until September 1921, Magritte served in the Belgian infantry in the Flemish town of Beverlo near Leopoldsburg. In 1922–23, he worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory, and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926, when a contract with Galerie le Centaure in Brussels made it possible for him to paint full-time.

Rene Magritte: Son of Man (1964)
source: wikipedia
In 1926, Magritte produced his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu), and held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927, which didn't work out successfully. He moved to Paris where he became friends with André Breton, and became involved in the surrealist group. What characterizes the surrealism of Magritte is the illusionsitic, dream-like quality. Unfortunately, Magritte was not as successful as he expected to be in Paris and therefore returned to Brussels in 1930 and resumed working in advertising. Together with his his brother Paul, he formed an agency which earned him a living wage.

During the German occupation of Belgium in World War II Magritte remained in Brussels, which led to a break with his friend Breton. He briefly adopted a colorful, painterly style in 1943–44, an interlude known as his "Renoir Period", as a reaction to his feelings of alienation and abandonment that came with living in German-occupied Belgium. In 1946, renouncing the violence and pessimism of his earlier work, he joined several other Belgian artists in signing the manifesto Surrealism in Full Sunlight. During 1947-48, Magritte's "Vache Period", he painted in a provocative and crude Fauve style. During this time, Magritte supported himself through the production of fake Picassos, Braques and Chiricos - a fraudulent repertoire he was later to expand into the printing of forged banknotes during the lean postwar period. But, in 1948, he returned to the style and themes of his prewar surrealistic art until his death in 1967.

At yovisto you can learn more about Rene Magritte and his works in the video of the New York Museum of Modern Art on Magritte's painting 'The Portrait' from 1935.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Universe goes beyond the Milky Way - Edwin Hubble contributions to Astronomy

Hubble Space Telescope
Image by NASA
On November 20, 1889, American astronomer Edwin Hubble was born. He is best known for his role in establishing the field of extragalactic astronomy and is generally regarded as one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century.

Although Edwin Hubble earned pretty good grades in school, he used to be more of a sportsman than a scientist. In 1907, he even led the University of Chicago's basketball tea to their very first conference. However, in his studies at the University of Chicago, Hubble concentrated mostly on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy even though his actual subject of study was law, surrendering to his father's request. After graduating, the young scientist taught mathematics at a high school and became a professional astronomer at the age of 25. Hubble successfully apllied at the Yerkes Observatory to tudy astronomy and received his PhD in 1917.

Hubble took a break from astronomy when Congress declared war on Germany and he volunteered for the Unites States Army. When he returned, Hubble was offered a position at the Carnegie Institution's Mount Wilson Observatory, which he accepted. In this period, the Hooker Telescope, which was then the largest telescope, was completed. Until then, it was widely assumed that the universe consisted of he Milky Way Galaxy only. The use of the Hooker Telescope however, proved differently. Hubble identified several nebulae, which locations were too distant for them to belong to the Milky Way. The 35 year old scientist presented his findings at the American Astronomical Society and immediately changed the human's perspective on the universe, even though not everyone supported his theory.

In 1929, Hubble formulated the empirical Redshift Distance Law of galaxies, which is today mostly known as Hubble's Law. It basically states that the greater the distance between any two galaxies, the greater their relative speed of separation. It was a significant support for the Big Bang theory y Georges Lemaître about two years earlier.

To further contributions to astronomy count Hubble's discovery of the asteroid 1373 Cincinnati and his work on 'The Observational Approach to Cosmology' and 'The Realm of the Nebulae'. Hubble has been praised for his findings and technologies that would help finding extraterrestrial life today as well as in the future. But despite his efforts and success, Hubble was never awarded a Nobel Prize, even though there was a campaign in order to achieve it and after his passing the Nobel Prize Committee decided that his work would have been eligible for a prize in physics, but it was too late. Still, Hubble is widely considered the 'pioneer of the distant stars'.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Ian Morison  on the legacy of both Edwin Hubble and the Space Telescope that bears his name. He starts at Hubble`s discovery of the expanding universe and goes on to the observations made bythe Hubble Space Telescope that have, over the last two decades, given us new insights into our Universe.


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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Money Buys Little - the Hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic

Money distribution area in Berlin, 1923
Image by The German Federal Archive
Mid November 1923, the Hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic reached its peak. Due to Germany's obligation to pay large reparations after World War I, a hyperinflation was induced reaching its peak in November 1923, when the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

As Germany got ready for the war in 1914, money was printed and was supposed to be financed through war bonds instead of taxes since it was clear that going to war would cost a incredible amount of money. Back in the day, nearly everyone in the country did not even think of the possibility that Germany could lose the war and pay reparations to others. It was calculated that Germany should win and then receive payments from the enemies. 

An overprinted German stamp of October 1923
hyperinflation surcharge of 1923: 2 Million on 200 Marks
As we all know things went quite differently. Germany lost the war was was supposed to pay large reparations, which increased inflation even more. The reparations were at first paid by further money prints and the situation went out of control. Needed goods, such as food, clothes and fuel deceased since lots of production areas shut down and priced increased. The wages were adjusted to the new prices, taxes were not increased adequately and it was too late to prevent the catastrophe. In the following years, many other countries in Europe suffered from the German inflation while Germany itself slowly started to recover from the crisis.

Still, reparations had to be paid, which at one point, Germany could not afford. The famous 'Occupation of the Ruhr' by French and Belgian troops started. The strikers were paid additional wages and caused another boost of inflation since the money itself devaluated even more. The hyperinflation started and reached its peak in November 1923, when the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

The German economy faced a complete breakdown. The citizens became poor, many homeless, unemployed, and increasingly unsatisfied with the political situation. Gustav Stresemann became the new chancellor in 1923 and ended the Ruhr occupation. The overall economic situation started to stabilize as well as the political relations.   

The effects of the hyperinflation were fatal to many. Most citizens from the middle class lost everything and claimed to have been betrayed by the government. Political extremists found a lot of approval. The Weimar Republic continued for a decade after the crisis, and it is widely assumed that the increasing power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi takeover resulted among other things from the economic difficulties.

If you wonder, how a hyperinflation works in general, you may be interested in a short video lecture at yovisto.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"

Book Cover of 'Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"
by Bill Watterson
On November 18, 1985, the first Calvin and Hobbes daily comic strip is published, the humorous antics of Calvin, a precocious and adventurous six-year-old boy, and Hobbes, his sardonic stuffed tiger by American cartoonist Bill Watterson. Ok, you might ask, what does a daily cartoon comic strip have to do with the history of science and technology. Well, we have included Calvin and Hobbes into our daily blog for several reasons: First, the reference for John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes and their philosophic differences that have been expressed in a wonderful and very peculiar way. Second, some of the cartoons do really relate to science and technology - let's not forget about transmogrification -, and third, there is of course also a personal story that I'm going to tell you today...

John Calvin was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he broke with the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 and fled to Geneva, Switzerland to help reform the church in Geneva. But, the Geneva city council resisted the implementation of Calvin's strict ideas and he was expelled. Calvin was a tireless polemic and apologetic writer who generated much controversy. Strongly influenced by the Augustinian tradition, he expounded the doctrine of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. Thomas Hobbes on the other hand, was an English philosopher of the 17th century, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory. As a founder of modern political philosophy, he developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order ; the view that all legitimate political power must be "representative" and based on the consent of the people; What if both of these extraordinary characters were put together into everyday situations of today?

Well, Watterson stated once that Calvin is named for "a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination," and Hobbes for "a 17th-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature." But, besides putting these two strong characters together, he came up with the idea to put his main characters into an mischievous six-year-old boy named Calvin and an anthropomorphic stuffed tiger named Hobbes, who only came to life when the story is told from Calvin's viewpoint. Other people only see the stuffed tiger, while for Calvin, Hobbes is a real character. Calvin and Hobbes is set in the contemporary United States in an unspecified suburban area. Calvin demonstrates his intelligence through his sophisticated vocabulary and a philosophical mind. The great thing about Calvin and Hobbes is that, as a child you probably love some of the physical humor going on there, but then as an adult you can catch on to more of the discussion. This might be one of the reasons why Calvin and Hobbes is just so timeless and still appeals to people. Calvin and Hobbes' relationship is by turns playful, combative, thoughtful and fantastical; they act and sound like real best friends. But they do things that most kids can only dream of – they time travel, dig for dinosaur bones in the backyard and build legions of abominable snowmen.

Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes at the end of 1995 with a short statement to newspaper editors and his readers that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. At the height of its popularity, Calvin and Hobbes was featured in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide; as of January 2010, reruns of the strip still appear in more than 50 countries. Nearly 45 million copies of the 18 Calvin and Hobbes books have been sold. Still, the magic of a boy and his imaginary friend never really left fans’ hearts. Another thing that makes Calvin and Hobbes so unique is also Watterson's refusal to sell out. Thus, the strip's authenticity is secured and as Watterson has declared once, he didn't become a for the attention, the accolades or the money. He just wanted to create the best comic strip possible.
"[W]e seem to have forgotten that a comic strip can be something more than a launch pad for a glut of derivative products. When the comic strip is not exploited, the medium can be a vehicle for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression." (Bill Watterson)
Finally, I also want to tell you about my personal story that relates me to Calvin and Hobbes. Back in the 1990s when I was working on my Ph.D. in theoretical computer science, a fellow PhD-student once sent me a link to one of the daily Calvin and Hobbes strips. I was immediately infected because it was so different compared to other comic strips I knew. On the one hand, profound truths and philosophical arguments were transported in some quintessential 3-6 picture frames and a few lines of dialogue. On the other hand, the story with the imaginary (tiger) friend also offered a serious option for identification - despite already being a grown-up. It was kind of a childhood nostalgia, when summer days seemed endless, stuffed with adventures, and you possessed all the time of the world, while in real life we were working day and night on algorithms, publications, and teaching.

At yovisto you can learn more about comic strip culture in the talk of Dave Kellett at Ohio State University on "The Freeing of Comics", given as a response to Bill Watterson's 1989 talk at the same forum, entitled, "The Cheapening of the Comics."

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