Monday, March 31, 2014

William Lawrence Bragg and X-Ray Chrystallography

William Lawrence Bragg
(1890 – 1971)
Image Author: Nobel Foundation
On March 31, 1890, British physicist and X-ray crystallographer William Lawrence Bragg was born. He discovered the Bragg law of X-ray diffraction, which is basic for the determination of crystal structure and was joint winner (with his father, Sir William Bragg) of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915.

William Lawrence Bragg was the son of a Mathematics and Physics Professor, who taught at the University of Adelaide. When the young Bragg broke his arm at the age of five, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was just everywhere in the news with his X-ray experiments and Bragg's father got himself experimental X-ray equipment as well in order to examine his son's fracture. This was the very first known surgical use of X-rays in Australia. Bragg's interest in science evolved very early as well and he was known to be a very eager student. At the age of 16, he enrolled at the University of Adelaide studying mathematics, chemistry, and physics before moving to England along with his family. Bragg joined Trinity College in Cambridge where he was elected to a Fellowship in later years.

During his active years of research, Bragg became famous for his law on the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. Bragg's law gives the angles for coherent and incoherent scattering from a crystal lattice. When X-rays are incident on an atom, they make the electronic cloud move as does any electromagnetic wave. The movement of these charges re-radiates waves with the same frequency. This is known as the Rayleigh scattering. Bragg made his discovery while working at Cambridge in 1912 along with his father in response to their discovery that crystalline solids produced surprising patterns of reflected X-rays. In Leeds, William Henry Bragg developed the X-ray spectrometer. The tool made it possible to analyze various types of crystals. Bragg's law was first presented on 11 November 1912 to the Cambridge Philosophical Society and was soon known as a very powerful tool for researching crystals in the form of X-ray and neutron diffraction. Both, father and son were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1915 for their work. They are the only father-son team to jointly win the Nobel Prize and William Lawrence Bragg was only 25 years old, which made him the youngest laureate.

Unfortunately, Bragg's actual research work was interrupted by the first and second World War. During these wars, he scientifically worked on sound ranging methods for locating enemy guns along with further scientists. Bragg was awarded the Military Cross for his achievements and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Between the wars, Bragg worked at the Victoria University of Manchester as Langworthy Professor of Physics and returned to Cambridge after World War II.

In the following period, Bragg became interested in the structure of proteins and was partly responsible for creating a group that used physics to solve biological problems. He had a significant role in the discovery of the DNA structure in 1953 through providing support to Francis Crick and James D. Watson. Later on, Bragg successfully lobbied for, and nominated, Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short introduction to Bragg's law and Diffraction by Professor Michael Cima at MIT.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Crawford Long and the Diethyl Ether Anesthesia

Crawford Long (1815-1878)
On March 30, 1842, American surgeon and pharmacist Crawford Williamson Long for the very first time used inhaled diethyl ether as an anesthetic for surgery. Can you imagine a surgery without anesthetic? Standing the pain while a surgeon is cutting something somewhere in your body? I think better not to. But, anesthetics already have a long tradition, longer than you might think.

Already since antiquity, a variety of Solanum species containing potent tropane alkaloids were used for anesthesia throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In 13th century Italy, Theodoric Borgognoni from the Salerno school of medicine used similar mixtures along with opiates to induce unconsciousness in the form of a "soporific sponge" ("sleep sponge"). In this anesthetic method, a sponge was soaked in a dissolved solution of opium, mandragora, hemlock juice, and other substances. The sponge was then dried and stored; just before surgery the sponge was moistened and then held under the patient's nose. When all went well, the fumes rendered the patient unconscious. In 1275, Spanish physician Raymond Lullus, while experimenting with chemicals, made a volatile, flammable liquid he called sweet vitriol. Sweet vitriol, or sweet oil of vitriol, was the first inhalational anesthetic used for surgical anesthesia. It is no longer used often because of its flammability.

in 1772, English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered the gas nitrous oxide. Initially, people thought this gas to be lethal, even in small doses. However, in 1799, British chemist and inventor Humphry Davy decided to find out by experimenting on himself. To his astonishment he found that nitrous oxide made him laugh, so he nicknamed it laughing gas. This is about the time, when Crawford Long came into play. Born in Danielsville, Madison County, Georgia on November 1, 1815, Long received his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1839. He noticed that his friends felt no pain when they injured themselves while staggering around under the influence of ether. Observing the same physiological effects with diethyl ether ("ether") that Humphry Davy had originally described for nitrous oxide in 1800, he immediately thought of its potential in surgery. Conveniently, a participant in one of those “ether frolics", a student named James Venable, had two small tumors he wanted excised. But fearing the pain of surgery, Venable kept putting the operation off. Hence, Long suggested that he have his operation while under the influence of ether. Long - who was by chance also a cousin of the western legend Doc Holliday - used ether for the first time on March 30, 1842 to remove the first tumor from the neck of James M. Venable, in Jefferson, Georgia. Subsequently, he removed a second tumor and furthermore used his ether as an anesthetic in amputations and childbirth. The results of these trials were published in 1849 in The Southern Medical and Surgical Journal.

But already on October 16, 1846, unaware of Long's prior work with ether during surgery, William T. G. Morton administered ether anesthesia before a medical audience at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Although Long had informed several surgical colleagues who had similarly administered ether in their practices, Morton is generally credited with the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia.

At yovisto, you can watch a TED talk given by Dr. Stuart Hameroff, a clinical anesthesiologist, who has studied how anesthetic gas molecules selectively erase consciousness via delicate quantum effects on protein dynamics. In his talk "Do we have a quantum Soul?", Hameroff explored the theoretical implications for consciousness to exist independent of the body.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Friedrich Accum and the Popularization of Chemistry

Friedrich Christian Accum (1769-1838)
On March 29, 1769, German chemist Friedrich Christian Accum was born. Accum's most important achievements included advances in the field of gas lighting, efforts to keep processed foods free from dangerous additives, and the promotion of interest in the science of chemistry to the general populace.

Accum was born in Bückeburg, Schaumburg-Lippe (near Hannover), where his father was in the service of Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe. Friedrich' father died, when the boy was only three years of age. He attended the Bückeburg Gymnasium and received private tutelage in the subjects of French and English. He finished an apprenticeship as an apothecary with the Brande family in Hanover, who were family friends and also conducted business in London. As one of the leading centers for scientific research and industry, London also attracted Friedrich, who relocated there in 1793. After gaining experience as an assistant in the apothecary, Accum pursued Scientific and medical studies at the School of Anatomy in Great Windmill Street in London. He became acquainted with the London chemist William Nicholson and in Nicholson's circulating journal, Accum published his first article in 1798. In 1800, Accum and his family changed residence in London and his family home should also served as a school, an experimental laboratory and a mercantile for chemicals and scientific instruments. His business manufactured and sold a variety of chemicals and laboratory equipment. Accum, himself, gave fee based public lectures in practical chemistry and collaborated with research efforts at numerous other institutes of science. By 1803, Accum had published a series of articles in Nicholson's Journal, which discussed a number of subjects: investigating methods to determine the purity of medicines, determining the existence of benzoic acids in vanilla extract, observing the explosivity of sulphur-phosphorus mixtures. In the same year one of Accum's most significant publications was completed, the System of Theoretical and Practical Chemistry, which was the first text-book of general chemistry written in the English language to be based on Lavoisier's new principles.

Artificial lighting of any sort was largely absent during the industrial development of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Using candles or oil lamps to illuminate a textile factory was costly, and economically unsound. With the advent of industrial means of production, not only were new textile halls physically larger, but they also had to be lit more brightly for longer periods of time. Driven by great demand, and made possible through Lavoisier's theoretical work regarding the role of oxygen in combustion, the end of the 18th century saw a continuous series of improvements in lighting technology. Intrigued by the work of Frederick Winsor, who had been championing the introduction of gas lighting in London, Accum too, became fascinated by this innovation. At the request of the Gas Light and Coke Company, he carried out many experiments in this novel field of inquiry. After a time of close working association with this company, he became a member of its board of directors in 1812. The company was charged with founding the first gasworks in London to supply gas lighting to both private and public areas. Accum was instrumental in the conception and design of this extremely successful gasworks.

The majority of Accum's publications were written in English. They were executed in a style that made them quite accessible to the common man. Many scientific contributions were brought forth through his writings, which were influential in the popularization of chemistry during this era. In 1820, Accum published Treatise on Adulteration of Food, in which he denounced the use of chemical additives to food. This ground breaking work marked the beginning of an awareness of need for food safety oversight. Accum was the first person to tackle the subject and to reach a wide audience through his activities. His book, controversial at the time, found a wide audience and sold well. However, it threatened established practices within the food processing industry, earning him many enemies among the London food manufactures. Accum left England after a lawsuit was brought against him. He lived out the rest of his life as a teacher at an industrial institution in Berlin.

At yovisto you can about light in the chemistry lecture of Berkeley Prof Christie A Boering on 'All Aglow: Light Energy'.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

The Three Mile Island Accident

A clean-up crew working to remove radioactive
contamination at Three Mile Island.
On March 28, 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in one of the two Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The so-called Three Mile Island Accident was the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.

Three Mile Island has got its name because it is located three miles downriver from Middletown, Pennsylvania. The plant was originally built by General Public Utilities Corporation and consists of two separate units. The Three Mile Island Unit 1 is a pressurized water reactor with a net generating capacity of 852 MWe, which first came online on April 19, 1974. TMI-1 is licensed to operate for 40 years from its first run, and in 2009, was extended 20 years, which means it may operate until 2034. The Three Mile Island Unit 2 was also a pressurized water reactor similar to Unit 1. The only difference was that TMI-2 was slightly larger and received its operating license in 1978.

The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system on March 28, 1979. In the nighttime hours preceding the incident, the TMI-2 reactor was running at 98% of full power, while the companion TMI-1 reactor was shut down for refueling. The initial cause of the accident happened eleven hours earlier, during an attempt by operators to fix a blockage in one of the eight condensate polishers, the sophisticated filters cleaning the secondary loop water. These filters are designed to stop minerals and impurities in the water from accumulating in the steam generators and increasing corrosion rates in the secondary side. With the steam generators no longer receiving feedwater, heat and pressure increased in the reactor coolant system, causing the reactor to perform an emergency shutdown (SCRAM). Within eight seconds, control rods were inserted into the core to halt the nuclear chain reaction. The reactor continued to generate decay heat and, because steam was no longer being used by the turbine, heat was no longer being removed from the reactor's primary water loop. Once the secondary feedwater pumps stopped, three auxiliary pumps activated automatically. However, because the valves had been closed for routine maintenance, the system was unable to pump any water.

Due to the loss of heat removal from the primary loop and the failure of the auxiliary system to activate, the primary loop pressure began to increase, triggering the pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) at the top of the pressurizer – a pressure active-regulator tank – to open automatically. The relief valve should have closed when the excess pressure had been released, and electric power to the solenoid of the pilot was automatically cut, but the relief valve stuck open due to a mechanical fault. The open valve permitted coolant water to escape from the primary system, and was the principal mechanical cause of the partial meltdown that followed, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant's user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.

Three Mile Island Unit 2 was too badly damaged and contaminated to resume operations; the reactor was gradually deactivated and permanently closed. TMI-2 had been online only 13 months but now had a ruined reactor vessel and a containment building that was unsafe to walk in. Cleanup started in August 1979 and officially ended in December 1993, with a total cleanup cost of about $1 billion. The accident crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public, resulted in new regulations for the nuclear industry, and has been cited as a contributor to the decline of a new reactor construction program that was already underway in the 1970s. The partial meltdown resulted in the release of unknown amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment.

Three Mile Island was not the first and should also not be the last nor the severest accident related to nuclear power plants. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale: an Accident With Wider Consequences. Two level 7 incidents should follow: Chernobyl and Fukushima, from its consequences we still suffer today. Unfortunately, the generation of nuclear power is not without risks. Natural disasters and human errors cannot be ruled out. Moreover, even if the production should be secure, nobody came up with a suitable longterm solution for nuclear waste up to now.

At yovisto, you can learn about an interesting view concerning nuclear power in the TED talk of Steward Brandt 'Does the World Need Nuclear Energy?' .

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Baron Haussmann's Renovation of Paris

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891)
On March 27, 1809, French politician and city planer Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussmann, was born. He was the Prefect of the Seine Department in France, who was chosen by the Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive program of new boulevards, parks and public works in Paris, commonly called Haussmann's renovation of Paris.

In the middle of the 19th century, the center of Paris had the same structure as it did in the Middle Ages. The narrow interweaving streets and cramped buildings impeded the flow of traffic, resulting in unhealthy conditions that were denounced by the first hygiene scientists. The plan to modernize the city dates back to revolutionary times, when the opening of broader avenues in Paris was suggested, with a street making a straight line from Place de la Nation to the Louvre. Napoleon I then commissioned the construction of a colossal street along the Jardin des Tuileries, the Rue de Rivoli, that extended under the Second Empire up to the Châtelet and the Rue Saint-Antoine. However, the law's objective of eventually widening the streets was not implemented.

At the end of the 1830s,tThe population of Paris had doubled since 1815, with no increase in its area. Paris prefect Claude-Philibert Barthelot, comte de Rambuteau, realised that the problems regarding traffic and hygiene in the old over-populated districts had become a cause for concern. In accordance with the contemporary miasma theory of disease, it was important to "let air and men circulate". This conclusion stemmed from the 1832 cholera epidemic, which killed 20,000 in Paris. In 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor and adopted the title Napoléon III. He decided to modernize Paris after seeing London, a city transformed by the Industrial Revolution, which offered large public parks and a complete sewer system. The post as emperor enabled him to ignore any resistance, but still he had to find a man capable of implementing a project of such magnitude. He eventually found Georges Eugène Haussmann, an effective administrator of proven loyalty, and he nominated him Prefect of the Seine in 1853. The two men formed an efficient team, the emperor supporting the prefect against his adversaries, and Haussmann showing loyalty in all circumstances, while promoting his own ideas such as a project for Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Haussmann was born in Paris on 27 March 1809, son of Nicolas-Valentin Haussmann, a senior official in the military establishment of Napoleon Bonaparte. He began his schooling at the collège Henri-IV and at the lycée Condorcet in Paris, and then began to study law. At the same time he studied music as a student at the Paris conservatory of music, for he was a good musician. In 1831, he began his career in public administration, finally becoming Prefect of the Yonne Department, including Bordeaux in 1850.

View over Paris, at dusk, with the large boulevards
Napoleon III and Haussmann launched a series of enormous public works projects in Paris, hiring tens of thousands of workers to improve the sanitation, water supply and traffic circulation of the city. Napoleon III installed a huge map of Paris in his office, marked with coloured lines where he wanted new boulevards to be. He and Haussmann met almost every day to discuss the projects and overcome the enormous obstacles and opposition they faced as they built the new Paris. First, the state expropriated those owners whose land was in the way of the renovations. For the nearly two decades of Napoleon III's reign, and for a decade afterwards, most of Paris was an enormous construction site. To bring fresh water to the city, his hydraulic engineer, Eugène Belgrand, built a new aqueduct to bring clean water from the Vanne River in Champagne, and a new huge reservoir near the future Parc Montsouris. He laid hundreds of kilometers of pipes to distribute the water throughout the city, and built a second network, using the less-clean water from the Ourq and the Seine, to wash the streets and water the new park and gardens. Beginning in 1854, In the center of the city, Haussmann's workers tore down hundreds of old buildings and cut eighty kilometers of new avenues, connecting the central points of the city. Buildings along these avenues were required to be the same height and in a similar style, and to be faced with cream-colored stone, creating the signature look of Paris boulevards.

To connect the city with the rest of France, Napoleon III built two new railroad stations: the Gare de Lyon and the Gare du Nord. The signature architectural landmark was the Paris Opera, the largest theater in the world, designed by Charles Garnier, crowning the center of Napoleon III's new Paris. Napoleon III also wanted to build new parks and gardens for the recreation and relaxation of the Parisians, particularly those in the new neighborhoods of the expanding city. In addition to building the four large parks of Paris, Haussmann had the city's older parks including the famous Jardin du Luxembourg, refurbished and replanted.

The reconstruction of the centre of Paris was the largest such public works project ever undertaken in Europe; never before had a major city been completely rebuilt when it was still intact. In the end, the Baron Haussmann's transformations to Paris improved the quality of life in the capital. Disease epidemics (save tuberculosis) ceased, traffic circulation improved and new buildings were better-built and more functional than their predecessors.

At yovisto, you can learn more about Paris in the 19th century and the change it went through with the reconstruction guided by Baron Haussmann in the lecture of Yale Prof. John Merriman on "Paris and the Belle Epoque".

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

George Smith and the Epic of Gilgamesh

George Smith (1840-1876) from an engraving
in The Illustrated London News, 1875
On March 26, 1840, English Assyriologist George Smith was born. Besides his pioneering work in Assyriology, he first discovered and translated the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest-known written work of literature. Moreover, its description of a flood, strikingly similar to the account in Genesis, had a stunning effect on Smith’s generation.

If you like books and stories, you should have heard about the Epic of Gilgamesh, the adventures of the King of Uruk far back in the 18th century BC. It's one of the oldest stories ever told. And in the 1870s, English Assyriologist George Smith was the first to translate the poem, found in 1853 by native Assyrian and Christian Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam, into modern language. What Smith discovered in his translation really was astonishing. He read of a flood, a ship caught on a mountain and a bird sent out in search of dry land—the first independent confirmation of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia, complete with a Noah-like figure and an ark. It constituted one of the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology.

George Smith was the son of a working-class family in Victorian England, born in Chelsea, London, and therefore limited in his ability to acquire a formal education. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a London-based publishing house to learn banknote engraving, at which he excelled. From his youth, he was fascinated with Assyrian culture and history. In his spare time, he read everything that was available to him on the subject. His interest was so keen that while working at the printing firm, he spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying publications on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosul in present-day Iraq by Austen Henry Layard, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and their Iraqi assistant Hormuzd Rassam, during the archeological expeditions of 1840–1855.

Smith's natural talent for cuneiform studies was first noticed by Samuel Birch, Egyptologist and Direct of the Department of Antiquities, who brought the young man to the attention of the renowned Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, the dominant figure in British cuneiform studies. As early as 1861, he was working evenings sorting and cleaning the mass of friable fragments of clay cylinders and tablets in the Museum's storage rooms. In 1866 Smith made his first important discovery, the date of the payment of the tribute by Jehu, king of Israel, to Shalmaneser III. Sir Henry suggested to the Trustees of the Museum that Smith should join him in the preparation of the third and fourth volumes of The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Finally in early 1870, Smith was appointed Senior Assistant in the Assyriology Department of the British Museum.

Smith's earliest successes were the discoveries of two unique inscriptions early in 1867. The first, a total eclipse of the sun in the month of Sivan inscribed on Tablet K51, he linked to the spectacular eclipse that occurred on 15 June 763 BC. This discovery is the cornerstone of ancient Near Eastern chronology. The other was the date of an invasion of Babylonia by the Elamites in 2280 BC. In 1871, Smith published Annals of Assur-bani-pal transliterated and translated, and communicated to the newly founded Society of Biblical Archaeology a paper on The Early History of Babylonia. Worldwide fame came to Smith in 1872, with his translation of the Chaldaean account of the Great Flood, better known today as the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literature in the world.

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic
The first half of the Gilgamesh story relates the friendship between Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh's peer to distract him from oppressing the people of Uruk. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain to defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death. Gilgamesh's distress at Enkidu's death causes him to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He eventually learns that "Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands".

The following January, Edwin Arnold, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, arranged for Smith to go to Nineveh at the expense of that newspaper and carry out excavations with a view to finding the missing fragments of the Flood story. However, Smith actually was able to discover some missing tablets, but moreover also some tablet fragmen that recorded the succession and duration of the Babylonian dynasties. In November 1873 Smith again left England for Nineveh for a 2nd expedition and continued his excavations. An account of his work is given in Assyrian Discoveries, published 1875. The rest of the year was spent in fixing together and translating the fragments relating to the creation, the results of which were published in The Chaldaean Account of Genesis, which should become one of the best-selling books of its time. In March, 1876, the trustees of the British Museum sent Smith once more to excavate the rest of Assurbanipal's library. At Ikisji, a small village about sixty miles northeast of Aleppo, he fell ill with dysentery and died in Aleppo on August 19, 1876.

To learn more about cuneiform, at yovisto you may watch a short video documentation on early books including cuneiform clay tablets.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

General Thomas Alexandre Dumas - Napoleon's 'Black Devil'

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806)
On March 25, 1762, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born. Dumas was the Father of the famous French author Alexandre Dumas and the first black General in the French army. The story of his life should become the blueprint for his son's most famous novels 'The Count of Monte Christo' and 'The Three Musketeers'.

For sure you know Alexandre Dumas, the famous author of the adventure stories around the 'Three Musketeers'. Maybe then you have also heard of his son, Alexandre Dumas fils (junior) - same name -, who also was a famous author most notably with his novel 'The Lady of the Camelias', which was the template for Giuseppe Verdi's opera 'La Traviata'. Now, to make the confusion complete, the father (grandfather) of Alexandre Dumas also was called 'Alexandre Dumas' - thus, in France they are often referred to as 'The three Dumas'. Well the later is often referred to as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas although he himself chose the name 'Alex Dumas' instead adopting his fathers name as 'Marquis Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie'.

Born 25 March 1762 in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was the son of a French nobleman, the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and his black African slave Marie-Cessette Dumas. In 1738, Alexandre Antoine joined his younger brother's sugar cane plantations in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean, to make a living. He lived with his brother's family and worked at the plantation until 1748, when the two brothers began to quarrel violently, and Antoine left the plantation. At that point Antoine broke off contact with his brother and his family for a period of thirty years. During that time, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie purchased the slave woman Marie-Cessette "for an exorbitant price" and took her as a concubine. In 1762, she gave birth to their mixed-race son Thomas-Alexandre.

When the brothers' parents died in 1758, Antoine returned to Normandy to claim the title Marquis and the family château. In 1776 when Alexandre was fourteen years old, his father sold the boy for 800 French livres in Port-au-Prince to a Captain Langlois. This sale (with right of redemption) provided both a legal way to have Alexandre taken to France with Langlois and a temporary loan to pay for his father's passage. The boy accompanied Captain Langlois to Le Havre, France, arriving on August 30, 1776, where his father bought him back and freed him. After his arrival in France, Alexandre studied at the academy of Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, where he was given the higher education of a young nobleman of the time. At this school, he learned swordsmanship from the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another mixed-race man from the French Caribbean. Thanks to his father's wealth and generosity, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas lived a life of considerable leisure.

In 1786 Dumas decided to join the French Army, a common occupation for gentlemen. Unlike his noble peers, who took arms as commissioned officers, Dumas enlisted as a private. Although a 1781 rule enabled men who could show four generations of nobility on their father's side to qualify to be commissioned as officers. Dumas had this, but the French race laws "made it hard for a man of mixed race to claim his rightful title or noble status." The enlistment roll-book described Dumas as "6 feet tall, with frizzy black hair and eyebrows... oval face, and brown skinned, small mouth, thick lips." According to the earliest known published description of him (1797), he was “one of the handsomest men you could ever meet."

Following the French revolution in 1789, Alex Dumas made his way through the military ranks. A corporal by 1792, Dumas made his first combat experience on the Belgian frontier, where he succeeded to captured 12 enemy soldiers while leading a small scouting party of 4 to 8 horsemen. In October 1792, Dumas accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel in the Légion franche des Américains et du Midi, a "free legion" (i.e., formed separately from the regular army) composed of free men of color (gens du couleur libre). It was also called the "American Legion," the "Black Legion," or the Saint-George Legion, after its commanding officer, the Chevalier de Saint-George, Dumas' former instructor in swordsmanship. On July 30, 1793, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Army of the North. One month later, he was promoted again, to general of division and was made commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees, followed by the command of the Army of the Alps. During his campaign in the Alps defeating Austrian and Piedmontese troops at Mont Cenis, where Dumas's army, equipped with ice crampons, took the mountain by scaling ice cliffs and captured between 900 and 1,700 prisoners. Though his victory won Dumas praise from political leaders in Paris, he was called before the Committee of Public Safety in the June of 1794, for reasons unspecified but probably to face charges of treason, as this was the period of the "Great Terror". Furtunately for him, Dumas delayed his arrival in Paris not to be seen by the Committee before the Terror ended with the execution of Robespierre on July 27, 1794.

General Dumas joined the Army of Italy in Milan in November 1796, serving under the orders of its commander-in-chief, Napoleon Bonaparte. Tension between the two generals began in this period, as Dumas resisted Napoleon's policy of allowing French troops indiscriminately to expropriate local property. Dumas' crowning achievement in this period came 1797, when the general single-handedly drove back an entire squadron of Austrian troops at a bridge over the Eisack River in Clausen. It was this feat for which the French began referring to Dumas as "the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol" (after a hero who had saved ancient Rome). In 1798, Dumas joined Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt. After the first battles were fought, Napoleon sent Dumas to pay ransom to some Bedouins who had kidnapped French soldiers. The expedition's chief medical officer recounted in a memoir that local Egyptians, judging Dumas' height and build versus Napoleon's, believed Dumas to be in command. Something which Napoleon would never forgive. Following the destruction of the French armada by a British fleet led by Horatio Nelson, however, Dumas was unable to get out of Egypt until March of the following year. Dumas' ship was forced by storms to land at Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples, where Dumas and the rest of the passengers were imprisoned and most of their belongings confiscated. Dumas was malnourished and kept incommunicado for two years until his release in March 1801.

After he finally gained release in 1801, Dumas was not awarded "the pension normally allocated to the widows of generals" by the French government and he struggled to support his family after his return to France. He repeatedly wrote to Napoleon Bonaparte, who kept ignoring his letters. He died of stomach cancer on 26 February 1806 in Villers-Cotterêts leaving behind his three-yrears-old son Alexandre and his widowed mother in deep poverty due to Napoleon Bonaparte's "implacable hatred".

So, if this is not the stuff, where adventure novels are made of! No wonder that young Alexandre Dumas was fascinated by his father, the military hero and his numerous adventures.

At yovisto you can learn more about the times of Alexandre Dumas and how it was like living in France in the 19th century in the lecture of Yale Prof. John Merryman on 'Nineteenth century's Cities'

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Joseph Sauveur and the Science of Acoustics

Baroque Musical Instruments by Breughel,
unfortunately there is no portrait of Joseph Sauveur
On March 24, 1653, French mathematician and physicist Joseph Sauveur was born. Sauveur is known principally for his detailed studies on acoustics, a term he also has coined for the first time.

Joseph Sauveur was the son of a provincial notaryin La Fléche, France. Despite a hearing and speech impairment that kept him totally mute until he was seven, Joseph benefited from a fine education at the Jesuit College of La Flèche, where his favorite subject was math. Even ever after Joseph was obliged to speak very slowly and with difficulty. He very early discovered a great turn for mechanics and read with greediness books of arithmetic and geometry. Being intended for the church, applied himself for a time to the study of philosophy and theology. At seventeen, his uncle agreed to finance his studies in philosophy and theology at Paris. Joseph, however, during his course of philosophy, he learned the first six books of Euclid in the space of a month, without the help of a master, and turned to anatomy and botany.

As he had an impediment in his voice, he gave up the church and applied himself to the study of physic. As this was against the wishes of his uncle, from whom he drew his principal resources, Sauveur determined to devote himself to his favourite study, so as to be able to teach it for his support. Despite his handicap, Joseph at age 23 managed to teach mathematics to the French Dauphine's pages and also to a number of princes of the Royal court, among them Eugene of Savoy. He had not yet read the geometry of Descartes, but he managed to make himself master of it in an inconceivably small space of time. By 1680, he was something of a pet at court, where he gave anatomy courses. "Basset" being a fashionable game at that time, the marquis of Dangeau asked him for calculating the odds, which gave such satisfaction, that Sauveur had the honor to explain them to the king and queen.

Saveur's enormous aptitude in mathematics and geometry, along with his serendipititios mathematical work on games of chance at a time when nobles and courtiers spent much of their time at Versailles gambling, led to a rapid accumulation of rich and powerful patrons, students, and positions. In 1681, Sauveur did the mathematical calculations for a waterworks project for the "Grand Condé's" estate at Chantilly, working with Edmé Mariotte, the "father of French hydraulics". Condé became very fond of Sauveur and severely reprimanded anyone who laughed at the mathematician's speech impediment. During his stay in Chantilly, Sauveur did his work on hydrostatics. During the summer of 1689, Sauveur was chosen to be the science and mathematics teacher for the Duke of Chartres, Louis XIV's nephew. For the prince, he drew up a manuscript outlining the "elements" of geometry and, in collaboration with Marshal Vauban, a manuscript on the "elements of military fortification" and, in order to join practice with theory, he went to the siege of Mons in 1691, where he | continued all the while in the trenches. In 1686 Sauveur obtained the mathematics chair at the Collège de France, which granted him a rare exemption: since he was incapable of reciting a speech from memory, he was permitted to read his inaugural lecture. Circa 1694, Sauveur began working with Émile Loulié, a musician and teacher at the royal court, on "the science of sound", that is, acoustics. This is really something extraordinary taking in mind Sauveur's handicapped condition. He had neither a voice nor hearing, yet he could think only of music. For all acoustical experiments he was reduced to borrowing the ear of someone else.

Sauveur is known principally for his detailed studies on a new branch of physics called acoustics. Indeed, he has been credited with coining the term acoustique, which he derived from the ancient Greek word ακουστός, meaning "able to be heard". His work involved researching the correlation between frequency and musical pitch, and he conducted studies on subjects such as the vibrating string, tuning pitch, harmonics, ranges of voices and musical instruments. If particular, Saveur also determined how to identify the pitch of a note by assessing the frequency of its vibration. He also asserted that harmonics are the component parts of all musical sound. In 1696, Saveur had been elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences and most of his work on acoustics was therefore done under its aegis. Saveur, whom a contemporary described as "over-obliging, gentle, and humorless", was declared a "pensioned veteran" of the Academy in on March 4, 1699. It was not until 1701 that Sauveur presented the results of his research to the Academy. The presentation was studded with jibes about musicians and their closed minds. In 1703, Marquis de Vanban having been made marshal of France, proposed Sauveur to the king as his successor in the office of examiner of the engineers, to which the king agreed, and honored him with a life-long pension. Sauveur was of an obliging disposition, and of a good temper; humble in his deportment, and of simple manners. He passed away in 1716.

At yovisto you can learn more about computer music and acoustics from the Computer Chronicles in the episode about "MIDI music"

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Deorbit of Russian Space Station MIR

Space Station MIR - shortly before deorbit
On March 23, 2001, Soviet space station MIR after more than 10 years of operation reentered Earth's atmosphere and crashed down in the Southern Pacific. MIR held the record for the largest artificial satellite orbiting the Earth until that record was surpassed by the International Space Station.

Mir was the first modular space station and was assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996. Its famous predecessor, the monolithic station Skylab launched and operated by NASA and was the United States' first space station orbiting the Earth from 1973 to 1979. But, the very first space station was the Russian Salyut 1. As well as Skylab, Salyut 1, which was launched by the Soviet Union on April 19, 1971, was "monolithic", i.e. intended to be constructed and launched in one piece, and then manned by a crew later. As such, monolithic stations generally contained all their supplies and experimental equipment when launched, and were considered "expended", and then abandoned, when these were used up. Actually there were several Salyut space stations: Salyut 2, Salyut 3, and Salyut 5, also known as Almaz stations were for military purpose, while Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 again were for civilian and research purposes.

As a predecessor of the International Space Station (ISS), and unlike previous stations, the Soviet space station Mir had a modular design; a core unit was launched, and additional modules, generally with a specific role, were later added to that. This method allows for greater flexibility in operation, as well as removing the need for a single immensely powerful launch vehicle. Modular stations are also designed from the outset to have their supplies provided by logistical support, which allows for a longer lifetime at the cost of requiring regular support launches.

After the construction of the ISS began in 1998, Russian resources were split between the two stations. In 2000, a contract was signed to lease the station for commercial use, with the Soyuz TM-30 mission, intended to prepare the station for future use and conduct some commercial research, being flown later that year. This was to have been followed by more missions, including flights with space tourists. However, due to the Russian government being concerned about the investors being able to fund these missions, it was decided against funding the continued operation of Mir. In November 2000, it was decided to deorbit Mir in a controlled way. By this stage Mir was well past the end of its design life. Therefore it was decided to deorbit it while it was still functioning rather than risk it falling back to Earth out of control, like Skylab in 1979 and Salyut 7 in 1991, potentially dropping debris over a populated area.

Two out of three Progress M1-5 propulsion firings, at approximately 90 minute intervals, were used to bring the perigee of Mir down to an altitude of 160 kilometres above the Earth's surface. A tough contact with the atmosphere occurred at 100 km altitude, when some of the external light elements of Mir were torn off due to the rush through the rarefied air. At an altitude of 90 km sufficient heating from Mirs hull created a glowing halo of hot plasma. At about that time, the orbital complex broke apart and several of Mir's elements, surrounded by the plasma, were visible from Fiji against the evening sky. The entire process lasted from about 16:20 to 20:29 local solar time. An official statement announced that Mir "ceased to exist" at 05:59:24 GMT. The location of Mir announced after re-entry was 160°W 40°S with a debris spread of ±1,500 km along track and ±100 km laterally. Salvage hunters managed to retrieve some sizeable chunks of Mir out of the Pacific Ocean.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short introduction to the space station Mir by NASA astronaut David Wolf from 1997.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rudy Rucker - Infinity and the Mind

Rudy Rucker, Fall 2004,
photo by Georgia Rucker
On March 22, 1946, American mathematician, computer scientist, science fiction author, and philosopher Rudolph von Bitter Rucker, better known as Rudy Rucker, was born. He is also one of the founders of the cyberpunk literary movement.

Rucker was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father Embry Cobb Rucker, Sr., a descended from Flemish Huguenots, ran a small furniture-manufacturing company. Later in life, Embry Cobb Rucker, Sr. became an Episcopal minister and worked as parish priest for the rest of his life.. His mother, Marianne von Bitter originally was from Berlin and came to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1937. She was an enthusiastic gardener, amateur artist and potter. Moreover, she also was a descendent of famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Rucker attended St. Xavier High School before earning a B.A. in mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1967 and M.S. (1969) and PhD (1973) degrees in mathematics from Rutgers University with a specialization on mathematical logic.

In 1972, Rucker started teaching in the Math. Dept. at the State University College at Geneseo, New York, with a "Higher Geometry" course, which turned into a series of lectures on the fourth dimension. Eventually he wrote the lectures up as Geometry, Relativity and The Fourth Dimension, published by Dover Publications, which should become the foundation of his writing career. Thanks to a grant from the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Rucker taught math at the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg from 1978 to 1980. He then taught at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia from 1980 to 1982, before trying his hand as a full-time author. Inspired by an interview with British scientist Stephen Wolfram, Rucker became a computer science professor at San José State University in 1986, from which he retired in 2004.
"Computations are everywhere, once you begin to look at things in a certain way." (Rudy Rucker)
A mathematician with philosophical interests, Rucker published Infinity and the Mind in 1982. The book contains accessible popular expositions on the mathematical theory of infinity, and a number of related topics. These include Gödel's incompleteness theorems and their relationship to concepts of artificial intelligence and the human mind, as well as the conceivability of some unconventional cosmological models. The material is approached from a variety of viewpoints, some more conventionally mathematical and others being nearly mystical.

As his "own alternative to cyberpunk," Rucker developed a writing style he terms Transrealism. The essence of transrealism, as outlined in his 1983 essay "The Transrealist Manifesto," is to write about one's real life in fantastic terms. The Secret of Life, White Light, and The Sex Sphere are examples of his transreal novels. The first recasts a traditional coming of age memoir as a UFO novel, the second is about Rucker's time as a mystical mathematician at SUNY Geneseo, while the third turns his two years in Germany into a tale of higher dimensions and nuclear terrorism.

Rucker is presently working on a 1950s SF novel called The Turing Chronicles, featuring a love affair between computer pioneer Alan Turing and Beat author William Burroughs. Rucker often uses his novels to explore scientific or mathematical ideas; White Light examines the concept of infinity, while the Ware Tetralogy  is in part an explanation of the use of natural selection to develop software. His non-fiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning Of Life, and How To Be Happy summarizes the various philosophies he's believed over the years and ends with the tentative conclusion that we might profitably view the world as made of computations, with the final remark, "perhaps this universe is perfect."

At yovisto you can watch Rudy Rucker delivering a rather interesting talk at TEDx Brussels 2012 about "Beyond Machines: The Year 3000".

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Albert Schweitzer and his Hospital in Africa

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
On March 21, 1913, theologian, organist, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa Albert Schweitzer together with his wife Helene start their voyage to Africa, to establish a hospital in Equatorial Africa.

Albert Schweitzer was born on January 14, 1875, as the second child of a Lutheran-Evangelical priest’s family in Kaysersberg. Some months after his birth the family moved to Guensbach, Alsace, where Albert’s father worked as a priest until his death. Albert attended elementary school there, followed by secondary school in Muenster and college in Muehlhausen. On June 18, 1893 he made his A-levels there. As a child he received a very good musical education which became the basis for his later magnificent organ playing. He later went on to become the world's leading expert on organ building. In 1893, Schweitzer played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, for whom Johann Sebastian Bach's organ-music contained a mystic sense of the eternal. Widor, deeply impressed, agreed to teach Schweitzer without fee, and a great and influential friendship was begun. Also from 1893 he studied Protestant theology and philosophy at the Kaiser Wilhelm Universität of Straßburg and completed his theology degree in 1899 and published his PhD thesis at the University of Tübingen. His studies also took him to the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin

Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, dedicated also to the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. With theological insight, he interpreted the use of pictorial and symbolical representation in J. S. Bach's religious music. In 1902 Schweitzer qualified as university lecturer in theology in Strasbourg where he afterwards worked as a private teacher. From 1903 to 1906 he was head of the monastery St. Thomas in Strasbourg. Along the way, Schweitzer published several books on theology, including the most famous, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, as well as books on Immanuel Kant, perhaps the definitive biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, books on organ building, and others.

Schweitzer had always felt a strong yearning towards direct service to humanity. In 1905, at the age of 30, he decided to study medicine; he wanted to become a mission doctor. In November 1911 he finished his studies successfully and in June 1912 he married Helene Bresslau. In February 1913 he graduated from university receiving his degree with a specialization in tropical medicine and surgery at the age of 38. Shortly after that he went to Africa with his wife to the small jungle place called Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa (now in Gabon), and built there a tropical hospital with a station for Hansen’s disease which he paid for on his own. On departure for Lambaréné in he was presented with a pedal piano, a piano with pedal attachments built especially for the tropics. It was Schweitzer's aim to alleviate the illness and misery of the people living there. The hospital was financed by donations and Schweitzer’s publications, speeches and organ concerts in Europe. In 1917-1918 Schweitzer, as a German national, was interned in France but wrote, during this period, two volumes of a projected philosophical study of civilization, The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization and Civilization and Ethics. There, Schweitzer contended that modern civilization is in decay because it lacks the will to love. He suggested that people should develop a philosophy based on what he termed "reverence for life," embracing with compassion all forms of life.

Only in 1924 was he able to return to Lambaréné. In spite of many obstacles, Schweitzer decided to rebuild a new, bigger hospital because the old one was too small and equipped it to provide care for thousands of Africans, including 300 lepers. In this hospital Schweitzer worked, except for a few interruptions, until his death in 1965. In 1952 he received the Nobel Peace Prize to add to such other recognitions as the Goethe prize of Frankfurt and numerous honorary doctorates awarded by Universities.
True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: "I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live." (Albert Schweitzer, from "The Civilizing Power of the Ethics of Reverence for Life")
At yovisto, you may learn more about Albert Schweitzer and his philosophy in the documentation "Albert Schweitzer: My Life is My Argument".

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