Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stephanie Kwolek and the Bullet-proof Vests

Stephanie Kevlar
(1923 - 2014)
Image: Chemical Heritage Foundation
On July 31, 1923, American polymer chemist Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born. She is best known for her invention of poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide - better known as Kevlar.

Stephanie Kwolek inherited her love for fabrics and sewing from her mother. Before thinking about chemistry, Kwolek thought, she might become a fashion designer, but her mother warned her she would probably starve in that business because she was such a perfectionist [1,4]. Fortunately, her interest in chemistry and medicine evolved as she grew older. When she graduated from the women’s college of Carnegie-Mellon University, she applied for a position as a chemist with the DuPont Company, among other places. Her job interview with W. Hale Charch, who had invented the process to make cellophane waterproof and who was by then a research director, was a memorable one. After Charch indicated that he would let her know in about two weeks whether she would be offered a job, Kwolek asked him if he could possibly make a decision sooner since she had to reply shortly to another offer. Charch called in his secretary and in Kwolek’s presence dictated an offer letter. In later years, she suspected that her assertiveness influenced his decision in her favor. At DuPont, the polymer research she worked on was so interesting and challenging that she decided to drop her plans for medical school and make chemistry a lifetime career [1,2].

During her time at DuPont, Kwolek was engaged in projects searching for new polymers as well as a new condensation process that takes place at lower temperatures, about 0˚ to 40˚C. The lower-temperature polycondensation processes, which employ very fast-reacting intermediates, make it possible to prepare polymers that cannot be melted and only begin to decompose at temperatures above 400°C. When she was in her mid-40s, Kwolek was assigned a project to scout for fibers capable of performing in extreme conditions. This assignment involved preparing intermediates, synthesizing aromatic polyamides of high molecular weight, dissolving the polyamides in solvents, and spinning these solutions into fibers. At one point, Kwolek discovered that a large number of of these rod-like polyamides' molecules formed liquid crystalline solutions and that these solutions can be spun directly into oriented fibers of very high strength and stiffness [1]. Testing the fibers in 1965, it was found that they were about five times as strong as steel of equal weight and resistant to fire. The potential on the market was discovered shortly after at DuPont and the institute apparently spent $500 million to develop Kevlar [3].
Pieces of Kevlar helmet used to help absorb the blast of a grenade

The fibers have found their way into all corners of the modern world. It has been used in car tires, boots for firefighters, hockey sticks, cut-resistant gloves, fiber-optic cables, fire-resistant mattresses, armored limousines and even canoes. It is used in building materials, making them bomb-resistant. Safe rooms have been built with Kevlar to protect a building’s occupants during hurricanes, and of course, bullet proof vests were introduced to police departments in 1975. A DuPont spokeswoman estimated that since the 1970s, 3,000 police officers have been saved from bullet wounds through the use of equipment reinforced with Kevlar [3].

Stephanie Kwolek received seveeral awards for invention of the technology behind Kevlar fiber. She received the National Medal of Technology in 1996 and one year later, the Perkin Medal, presented by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry. Both prizes were known to be rarely awarded to women. In 1999, she also received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. She has served as a mentor for other women scientists and participated in programs that introduce young children to science [2,3].

Stephanie Kwolek passed away on June 18, 2014.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video interview with Stephanie Kwolek, who talks about her experience as a female scientist and her major discoveries.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Marius and the Battle of the Raudine Plain

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
The battle of Vercellae, 1725-1729
On July 30, 101 BC, the Battle of the Raudine Plain took place, the Roman victory of Consul Gaius Marius over the invading Germanic tribe of the Cimbri near the settlement of Vercellae in Cisalpine Gaul. The entire tribe of the Cimbri was virtually wiped out and the plans of the Germanic tribes of an invasion of Rome was put to an end.

Well, then raise your hands if you have ever heart about the Battle of Vercellae. I don't see many. Then let me tell you the story about this important event, at least important for the progress of the Roman Empire. Just try to image if the Germanic plans to invade Rome would have been successful and possibly the Roman Empire as we know it would never have come into existence. History would have taken a completely different term...and probably I would also not be writing this blog.

The Battle of Vercellae was the last and decisive battle between the migratory Germanic tribe of the Cimbri and the Romans. We do not know what caused the Cimbri to leave their settlements at the Northern Sea together with the tribes of Teutons and Ambrones and to wander throughout Europe looking for new settlement area. It was the Cimbri, who had separated from the other tribes and penetrated Northern Italy, which belonged to Roman Territory. They had defeated the Romans in several battles, such as the Battle at Noreia (113 BC) and the battle of Arausio (105 BC).

The Roman commander Quintus Lutatius Catulus had the task to secure the Alpine passes. But as the Cimbri flooded over the Alpes, he gave up the passes and retreated behind the river Etsch. The Cimbri attacked the last defenders beyond the Etsch. In full admiration of the Roman courage, they granted the defenders free passage. Nevertheless, they devastated the entire landscape. In the meantime, Roman consul Gaius Marius, who had successfully defeated the Teutons the previous year in the battle of Aqua Sextiae, moved with his troops to Northern Italy to unite with the troops of Catulus. His soldiers were part of the reformed army, i.e. they had to carry all equipment and military gear by themselves - therefore they were also called 'muli Mariani' (mules of Marius).

The leader of the Cimbri, Boiorix, made a peace proposal to Marius. The Cimbri would not fight against the Romans if they were allowed to keep the land. Marius rejected and instead, he brought forward the captive king of the Teutons, Teutobod. Up to this time, the Cimbri did not know about the defeat of the Teutons. Now, Biorix called Marius to determine the battle ground, and Marius decided for the Raudine Plain, 5 km from Vercelli.

The 13,000 strong Cimbri cavalry rode onto the battlefield. Behind them came the 197,000 strong infantry. Marius made a final sacrifice to the gods. According to Plutarch "Marius washed his hands, and lifting them up to heaven, vowed to make a sacrifice of 100 beasts should victory be his." The Romans got into position first, therefore the sun would be reflecting off the Roman's armor. The Cimbri thought the sky was on fire. Sensing their sudden anxiety, the Romans attacked. The Cimbri cavalry were taken completely by surprise by the Roman cavalry. The Cimbri were forced back. The Roman legionnaires than engaged the Cimbri infantry. The Cimbri were very unnerved by this. Plutarch writes that the Romans now were able to slaughter the enemy with ease. Boiorix and his noblemen made a last stand in which they were all killed. The Romans had won a complete and stunning victory.

The victory of Vercellae put an end to Germanic plans to invade Rome. The Cimbri were virtually wiped out, with the Romans claiming to have killed 140,000 and captured 60,000, including large numbers of women and children. Politically, this battle had great implications for Rome as well. It marked a continuation in the rivalry between Marius and Sulla, which would eventually lead to the first of Rome's great civil wars. But this is already another story...

At yovisto you can learn more about the times of the Roman Republic in the lecture of Melinda Cole Klein from the series 'Imperial Empires'.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dorothy Hodgkin and the Structure of Penicilin

Dorothy Hodgkin
(1910 – 1994)
On July 29, 1994, British chemist and Nobel Laureate Dorothy Mary Hodgkin passed away. She advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. Among her most influential discoveries are the confirmation of the structure of penicillin.

Dorothy Crowfoot's (late Hodgkin's) interest in chemistry started around the age of only 10. Her parents were involved in education projects in Egypt and Sudan and during a visit, their daughter was allowed to study and analyze some chemicals with a friend of the family. Also, when she was attending the Sir John Leman School, she was allowed to join the boys as they studied chemistry. By the end of her early schooling, she had already decided that chemistry was something she wanted to pursue. Also, it is assumed that her time in Sudan played a big role in her future career. She was able to help with excavations and studied pebbles with a portable mineral analysis kit, which pushed her fascination and interest in crystals and minerals. This experience almost made her give up chemistry and replace it with archaeology instead. Then she was given a copy of “Concerning the Nature of Things” by Sir William Henry Bragg when she was 15, and she was intrigued at the thought of being able to study the properties of atoms and molecules using x-rays. She began studying chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford University and continued at the University of Cambridge to earn her PhD with John Desmond Bernal, who had worked for five years with the senior Bragg [1]. Hodgkin and Bernal used X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structure of several complex organic molecules important to the functioning of living organisms [2].

To Hodgkin's most important contributions to the science of chemistry belongs presumably the determination of the structures of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. She determined the exact structure of penicillin in 1945. The results contradicted general scientific thought at the time and therefore put researchers on the right path to developing further and more sophisticated uses for penicillin-based antibiotics, including the development of semisynthetic versions. In the 1950s, the scientist and her colleagues published an analysis of vitamin B12 which expanded the understanding of how this vital nutritional component functions and how it is utilized by the human body. Hodgkin spent years honing and improving the available methods to penetrate the mysteries of ever-more complicated structures. After 35 years of work, the internal structure of insulin was solved [3]. She received the Nobel Prize in chemistry "for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances". Also, she was the third woman ever to win the prize in chemistry, after Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie [2].

Next to her research studies, Dorothy Hodgkin was highly involved in humanitarian projects including the welfare of scientists and people living in nations defined as adversaries by the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam. She was also the chair of the Pugwash movement, which dealt with potential dangers raised by scientific research [2].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin's biographer. She explains the story of the structure of penicillin and the personal and professional challenges, Hodgkin faced during her years of research.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Karl Popper and the Philosophy of Science

Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994)
On July 28, 1902, Austrian-British philosopher Sir Karl Raimund Popper was born. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. Popper is known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favour of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.

Karl Raimund Popper was born in Vienna to Simon Siegmund Carl Popper, a lawyer from Bohemia and Jenny Schiff Popper, who was of Silesian and Hungarian descent. All of Karl Popper's grandparents were Jewish, but the Popper family converted to Lutheranism before Karl was born. They understood this as part of their cultural assimilation, not as an expression of devout belief. Carl's father was a bibliophile who had 12,000–14,000 volumes in his personal library. By the time, Vienna claimed to be the cultural epicentre of the western world.

Karl attended the local Realgymnasium, where he was unhappy with the standards of the teaching, and, after an illness which kept him at home for a number of months, he left to attend the University of Vienna in 1918. However, he did not formally enrol at the University by taking the matriculation examination for another four years. In 1919 he became heavily involved in left-wing politics, joined the Association of Socialist School Students, and became for a time a Marxist. However, he was quickly disillusioned with the doctrinaire character of the latter, and soon abandoned it entirely. He also discovered the psychoanalytic theories of Siegmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and listened entranced to a lecture which Albert Einstein gave in Vienna on relativity theory. The dominance of the critical spirit in Einstein, and its total absence in Marx, Freud and Adler, struck Popper as being of fundamental importance: the pioneers of psychoanalysis, he came to think, couched their theories in terms which made them amenable only to confirmation, while Einstein's theory, crucially, had testable implications which, if false, would have falsified the theory itself [1].

Popper had a rather melancholic personality and took some time to settle on a career; he obtained a primary school teaching diploma in 1925, took a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1928 and qualified to teach mathematics and physics in secondary school in 1929. The dominant philosophical group in Vienna at the time was the Wiener Kreis, a circle of ‘scientifically-minded’ intellectuals including Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Viktor Kraft, and Hans Hahn with the principal objective to unify the sciences. For his part, Popper became increasingly critical of the main tenets of logical positivism. He articulated his own view of science, and his criticisms of the positivists in "Logik der Forschung" in 1934 (translated by Popper himself twenty-five years later under the title The Logic of Scientific Discovery), which gained him an enormous reputation and had a tremendous impact on the scientific community.
"In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding. If you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are." (Karl Popper)
Due to the rise of fascism in Austria as well as in Germany and the steady growth of anti-Semitism, Popper was forced to leave Austria. In 1937, he went to New Zealand and taught philosophy as a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury. After the Second World War, he went to London, first as reader in logic and scientific method, then in 1949 became a professor of logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics, a post which he held until 1969. Many visits as a guest professor in the United States followed, amongst them the William James Lectures at Harvard in 1950.[2]

Popper's relations with many of his most devoted students were now often stormy and, with the exception of one or two cases, tended to end in open hostility. Popper had become intolerant of dissent and also inclined to misunderstand the nature of his own contribution to the philosophy of science. He believed that he had solved the problem of how scientific knowledge is generated and established. In reality he had merely moved the problem one step forward and so opened an entirely new problem. In demonstrating that all scientific knowledge is only provisional and hypothetical, he had invited doubts as to the degree to which it genuinely corresponded to reality. These doubts were pursued by Thomas Kuhn and led him to a relativism which never gained Popper’s approval.[3]

He had public debates with Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno, two of the most popular luminaries of Continental philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1972 he published his third major book, Objective knowledge, in which he established a close link between his philosophy of science and the development of neo-Darwinism. He was knighted in 1965. Popper continued to think and write until the very last years of his life. He died on 17 September 1994 in Croydon, Surrey.

At yovisto, you can listen to an excerpt of Sir Karl Popper's 'Science as Falsification' from his 1963 book 'Conjectures and Refutation'.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Rosalind Franklin and the Beauty of the DNA Structure

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
On July 25, 1920, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born. She made the first clear X-ray images of DNA’s structure. Her work was described as the most beautiful X-ray photographs ever taken. Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ informed Crick and Watson of DNA’s double helix structure for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London, as the second of five children into an affluent and influential British Jewish family. From early childhood, Franklin showed exceptional scholastic abilities. She was educated at St Paul's Girls' School where she excelled in science, Latin and sports. From the age of 15 on, she knew already that she wanted to become a scientist. Rosalind Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938 and studied chemistry. In 1941, she was awarded Second Class Honors in her finals, which, at that time, was accepted as a bachelor's degree in the qualifications for employment. When she graduated, Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to do graduate work. She spent a year in R.G.W. Norrish's lab without great success. Norrish recognized Franklin's potential but he was not very encouraging or supportive toward his female student. She went on to work as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal—work that was the basis of her 1945 Ph.D. thesis "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal." [1] CURA was a young organization and there was less formality on the way research had to be done. Franklin worked fairly independently, a situation that suited her. Franklin worked for CURA until 1947 and published a number of papers on the physical structure of coal.

Franklin's next career move took her to Paris from 1947 to 1950. An old friend introduced her to Marcel Mathieu who directed most of the research in France. He was impressed with Franklin's work and offered her a job as a "chercheur" in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat. Here she learned X-ray diffraction techniques from Jacques Mering. In 1951, Franklin was offered a 3-year research scholarship at King's College in London. With her knowledge, Franklin was to set up and improve the X-ray crystallography unit at King's College. Maurice Wilkins was already using X-ray crystallography to try to solve the DNA problem at King's College. Franklin arrived while Wilkins was away and on his return, Wilkins assumed that she was hired to be his assistant. It was a bad start to a relationship that never got any better. [2]

Wilkins' mistake, acknowledged but never overcome, was not surprising given the climate for women at the university then. Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin's colleagues went to men-only pubs. But Franklin persisted on the DNA project. J. D. Bernal called her X-ray photographs of DNA, "the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." Between 1951 and 1953 Rosalind Franklin came very close to solving the DNA structure. She was beaten to publication by Crick and Watson in part because of the friction between Wilkins and herself. At one point, Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin's crystallographic portraits of DNA. When he saw the picture, the solution became apparent to him, and the results went into an article in Nature almost immediately. Franklin's work did appear as a supporting article in the same issue of the journal.[3]

A debate about the amount of credit due to Franklin continues. What is clear is that she did have a meaningful role in learning the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank. Franklin moved to J. D. Bernal's lab at Birkbeck College, where she did very fruitful work on the tobacco mosaic virus. She also began work on the polio virus. In the summer of 1956, Rosalind Franklin became ill with cancer. She died less than two years later.

Franklin was never nominated for a Nobel Prize. She had died in 1958 and was therefore ineligible for nomination to the Nobel Prize in 1962 which was subsequently awarded to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins in that year. The award was for their body of work on nucleic acids and not exclusively for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson has suggested that ideally Wilkins and Franklin would have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

At yovisto you may enjoy the video lecture 'You say you want a revolution: DNA analysis methods' by Prof. Dr. Qiang Zhou from Berkeley University.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Plays of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
On July 26, 1856, Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw was born. As a writer, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60 plays. He is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938).

George Bernard Shaw was born in Synge Street, Dublin, to George Carr Shaw, an unsuccessful grain merchant and sometime civil servant, and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, a professional singer. His education was irregular, due to his dislike of any organized training. When Shaw was just short of his sixteenth birthday, his mother left her husband and son and moved with Vandeleur Lee to London, where the two set up a household, along with Shaw's older sister Lucy. After working in an estate agent's office for a while he moved to London as a young man (1876), where he established himself as a leading music and theatre critic in the eighties and nineties and became a prominent member of the Fabian Society, for which he composed many pamphlets [1]. Together with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Shaw had founded the Fabian Society, a socialist political organization dedicated to transforming Britain into a socialist state, not by revolution but by systematic progressive legislation, bolstered by persuasion and mass education. The Fabian society would later be instrumental in founding the London School of Economics and the Labour Party.

In 1891, at the invitation of J.T. Grein, a merchant, theatre critic, and director of a progressive private new-play society, The Independent Theatre, Shaw wrote his first play, Widower's Houses. Shaw's first plays were published in volumes titled "Plays Unpleasant" (containing Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession) and "Plays Pleasant" (which had Arms and the Man, Candida, The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell). The plays were filled with what would become Shaw's signature wit, accompanied by healthy doses of social criticism, which stemmed from his Fabian Society leanings. These plays would not go on to be his best remembered, or those for which he had high regard, but they laid the groundwork for the oversized career to come [2]. In 1897 Shaw attained his first commercial success with the American premiere of The Devil’s Disciple, which enabled him to quit his job as a drama critic and to make his living solely as a playwright. In 1898, after a serious illness, Shaw resigned as theatre critic, and moved out of his mother's house (where he was still living) to marry Charlotte Payne-Townsend, an Irish woman of independent means. Although Shaw was occasionally linked with other women, this marriage lasted until Charlotte's death in 1943 [3].

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a great influence on Shaw's thinking. For a summer meeting of the Fabian Society in 1890, he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), in which he considered Ibsen a pioneer, "who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous."

Pygmalion, by Bernard Shaw, by far his most popular work, was first performed in 1913. "Although Shaw claimed that he had written a didactic play about phonetics, and its anti-heroic protagonist, Henry Higgins, is indeed a speech professional, what playgoers saw was a high comedy about love and class, about a cockney flower-girl from Covent Garden educated to pass as a lady, and the repercussions of the experiment... The First World War began as Pygmalion was nearing its hundredth sell-out performance, and gave Shaw an excuse to wind down the production.", according to one of the leading experts on Shaw, Stanley Weintraub [4].

 During World War I, Shaw’s anti-war pamphlets and speeches made him very unpopular as a public figure. In Heartbreak House (performed 1920) he exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the carnage. Next came Back to Methuselah (1922) and Saint Joan (1923), acclaim for which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1925. Shaw continued to write plays and essays until his death in 1950 at the age of 94.

At yovisto you can learn more about George Bernard Shaw in the educational Encyclopedia Britannica production 'Shaw vs. Shakespeare I: The Character of Caesar'

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Thomas Say and his Love for Beetles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
in: American entomology :
A Description of the Insects of North America
by Thomas Say
On July 27, 1787, American self-taught naturalist, entomologist, malacologist, herpetologist and carcinologist Thomas Say was born. A taxonomist, he is widely considered the father of descriptive entomology in the United States.

Thomas Say attended Westtown Boarding School near Philadelphia and his father discouraged him from the pursuit of natural history, trying to interest him instead in the family apothecary business and around 1812, Say even entered into partnership with apothecary John Speakman, but the enterprise failed very soon [2]. His interest in natural history was stimulated by his great-uncle, William Bartram. Say was a cofounder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812 and served a curator from 1812 to 1826 and as professor of zoology in the Museum of Philadelphia from 1821 to 1825 [1]. During his career, Thomas Say took part in several expeditions. In 1819 - 1820, Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains, which Say accompanied as a zoologist. The expedition party searched for the headwaters of the Red River, made maps of the uncharted Louisiana Territory, and located areas for military posts to protect the American fur trade. Unfortunately, Thomas Say's journal entries from the expedition were stolen by soldiers, who apparently left the party during the expedition. However, records of the expedition were still published and large collections of the flora and fauna of the area were described. Say himself, collected and described several species including the collared lizard, which is on this day the official state lizard of Oklahoma [1].

The scientist became curator of the American Philosophical Society and then professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1822. He took part in another expedition the year after, functioning as zoologist and paleontologist to St. Peter’s River at the headwaters of the Mississippi. The expedition made it all the way up to Lake of the Woods in Canada and across the northern portion of Lake Superior. Say managed to collect enough insect specimens to accurately represent North America in his American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, which was published in three volumes between 1824 and 1828 [2].

Say's scientific reputation grew after he published the first volume and he is now considered as the father of American entomology and conchology. After finishing this work, Say went on to publish another definitive work, on American shells, and approached the subject with the same spirit of adventure and reverence that informed his work on insects. As he wrote, "It is an enterprise that may be compared to that of a pioneer or early settler in a strange land," and he did much to advance Americans' understanding of the natural world they encountered as they moved inexorably across the continent [3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on "International Entomology: Changing the World, One Bug at a Time" by Rick Foster.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joseph Nicollet and the Upper Mississippi River

On July 24, 1786, French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician Joseph Nicolas Nicollet was born. He is best known for mapping the Upper Mississippi River basin during the 1830s. Nicollet's maps were among the most accurate of the time and they provided the basis for all subsequent maps of the American interior

Jean-Nicolas Nicollet Nicollet was born in Cluses, Savoy, France. He was very bright, showing aptitude in mathematics and astronomy that earned him a scholarship to the Jesuit college in Chambéry and led him to begin teaching mathematics at age 19. Wishing to further his education, he went to Paris and attended the École Normale Supérieur. He taught in Paris for a brief period before, in 1817, becoming secretary and librarian at the Paris Observatory. At the Observatory he continued his education, studying under mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. He continued teaching mathematics and, in 1818, he gives his posts as Astronomer attached to the Royal Observatory in Paris and Professor of Mathematics at the College of Louis-Le-Grand. Working at the observatory, Nicollet discovered a comet and built a reputation as an expert in astronomy and physical geography. Afterward, he worked as a mathematics professor at the Collège Louis-le-Grand during the 1820s [1].

Nicollet rapidly made a fine reputation for himself both as a teacher and as a mathematical astronomer at the Observatory, receiving the Legion of Honour for his excellent work. Using his mathematical skills, he applied the principles of mathematical probability to the stock market believing that he could make his fortune. His probability considerations did not allow for the French Revolution of 1830 which caused the stock market to crash. Nicollet was ruined financially. Penniless, he emigrated to the United States in 1832. Nicollet hoped to boost his reputation among European academics through his work in the United States. He intended to make a "scientific tour" of the country and had a goal of using his expertise to accurately map the Mississippi River Valley.

He arrived in Washington, D.C., where he met with scientists and government officials, discussing scientific surveys of the country. Nicollet traveled to New Orleans, from where he intended to proceed to St. Louis, Missouri. But, because of a cholera outbreak, travel became difficult. After a delay of 3 years, Nicollet finally arrived in St. Louis in 1835. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Nicollet gained support for his plan to map the Mississippi River from the American Fur Company and the wealthy Choteau family. Overall, Nicollet led three expeditions exploring the Upper Mississippi, mostly in the area that is now Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Nicollet was frequently ill due to his weak constitution and exposure to the elements. He was nothing if not determined and, after studying the southern portion of the river, he turned his attention to the location of the source of the river. In the summer of 1836, he arrived at Fort Snelling, where he was taken in by Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro’s family, who provided Nicollet with all the supplies he needed for his visit to the source of the river. As travelling north on the river with a few companions, he continued making notes on his geographical position and drawing the landscape [2]. In this first expedition, Nicollet explored the Mississippi to its source of Lake Itasca and the nearby Mississippi tributary, the St. Croix River. The results of this expedition corrected an error in Zebulon Pike's 1805 map, which placed the mouth of the Crow Wing River too far to the west, rendering all maps of this area inaccurate.

In his second expedition in 1838, his goal was to map the area between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in order to correct the western maps affected by Pike's mistake. A third expedition took Nicollet northwest from Iowa along the Missouri River toward Fort Pierre, South Dakota. On September 11, 1839, Nicollet returned to Washington, D.C. where he worked on consolidating the information collected during the expeditions. He fully intended to return to Minnesota to continue his work, but failing health led to his death in Washington in 1843. Later that year, a book containing much of his work, Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi, was published.

At yovisto, we don't have a video lecture about Joseph Nicollet. But, you can learn more about the Mississippi river in the 1951 documentary 'People along the Mississippi'.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Isaac Singer and the Sewing Machine

Woman working with singer machine (ca. 1914)
Image Source: Library of Congress
On July 23, 1875, American inventor, actor, and entrepreneur Isaac Merrit Singer passed away. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Isaac Merritt Singer was born in 1811 in Pittstown, new York and worked as a mechanist, starting from the age of 12. He joined a traveling theater group when he was 19 and continued his work as a machinist between performances. Singer invented a rock drill in 1839 and sold the patent for $2000 shortly after. He founded his own acting group and toured through the Unites States until they ran out of money. [3] Singer now managed to find financial supporters for his patented machine for carving wooden type for printing presses and he moved to Boston in order to work on his machine in Orson Phelp's machine shop. Phelps held a license to build sewing machines for the Lerow & Blodgett Company. Unfortunately for Singer, his carving machine was not successful, because most printers had switched to metal type. One day, Phelps asked Singer for help with one of his Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines. The inventor agreed and immediately found ways to improve the machines. It is said that it took Singer only 11 days to create a new and significantly better machine compared with with Lerow & Blodgett's. He redesigned the sewing machine in a way that it could stitch continuously in curved lines. He replaced the needle bar on an arm hanging over the table and introduced the foot pedal instead of a hand crank. Phelps, Singer, and the financial supporter Zieber formed a company and the inventor received a patent for his machine in 1851. [1]

Shortly after, Singer got rid of his partners and sided with a lawyer named Clark, who helped the inventor through a series of law suits. A patent pool was then created by which all parties were able to profit. However, Singer's profit was the largest since his machine enjoyed the most success on the market. Already in the early 1860s, Singer's sewing machines turned out to be the most successful in the world. Many assume that the triumph on the market was due to the high quality of the machines as well as the liberal credit terms, the company offered to its customers. In 1863, the Singer Manufacturing Company was founded and Singer himself moved to England. At that time, Singer was no longer involved in the manufacturing process and he passed away on July 23, 1875. [1]

In 1855, a Singer sewing machine was awarded a first prize at the World's Fair in Paris. The success of the machines grew even more, when the company opened large showrooms, for instance at the Broadway in New York City. The company also introduced interchangeable parts and reduced the machines' size and weight through the years. By 1880, an Edison electric motor was used to drive some Singer sewing machines and large factories across Europe and the Americas have been opened. By 1927, the first Singer Sewing Centers opened, offering sewing courses and enjoying a large success as well.[2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a Singer Sewing Machine commercial from the 1950s.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Friedrich Bessel and the Distances of Stars

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846) [1]
On July 22, 1784, German mathematician and astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel was born. He is probably best known for his works in mathematics, where he discovered the eponymous Bessel-functions, which are critical for the solution of certain differential equations.

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel was born in Minden, Westphalia (today Germany), as second son of a civil servant. Bessel attended the Gymnasium in Minden for four years but he did not appear to be very talented, finding Latin difficult, although he later succeeded in teaching the ancient language to himself. At the age of 14 Bessel was apprenticed to the import-export concern Kulenkamp at Bremen. At first Bessel received no salary from the firm. The business's reliance on cargo ships led him to turn his mathematical skills to problems in navigation. This in turn led to an interest in astronomy as a way of determining longitude.

In 1804 Bessel wrote a paper on Halley's comet, calculating the orbit using data from observations made by Thomas Harriot and William Lower in 1607 [2]. This brought him to the attention of a major figure of German astronomy at the time, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, the leading comet expert of his time. Olbers recognised at once the quality of Bessel's work and Olbers gave Bessel the task of making further observations to carry his work further. The resulting paper, at the level required for a doctoral dissertation, was published on Olbers' recommendation. From that time on Bessel concentrated on astronomy, celestial mechanics and mathematics.

In 1806 Bessel accepted the post of assistant at the Lilienthal Observatory, which gave him valuable experience observing planets, in particular Saturn, its rings and satellites. He also observed comets and continued his study of celestial mechanics. In January 1810, at the age of 26, Bessel was appointed director of the new founded Königsberg Observatory by King Frederick William III of Prussia. There he published tables of atmospheric refraction derived from James Bradley's observations of the positions of 3222 stars made around 1750 at Greenwich (Bradley was English Astronomer Royal from 1742 to 1762), which he had already began in 1807. While the observatory was still in construction Bessel elaborated the Fundamenta Astronomiae based on Bradley's observations. It was not possible for Bessel to receive a professorship without first being granted the title of doctor. A doctorate was awarded by the University of Göttingen on the recommendation of Gauss, who had met Bessel in Bremen in 1807 and recognized his talents.

Since 1819 Bessel determined the position of over 50,000 stars assisted by some of his qualified students. With this work under his belt, Bessel was able to achieve the feat for which he is best remembered today: he is credited with being the first to use parallax in calculating the distance to a star. Bessel showed in 1838 that 61 Cygni, a star barely conceivable with the naked eye, apparently moved in an ellipse every year. This back and forth motion, called the annual parallax, could only be interpreted as being caused by the motion of Earth around the Sun. Astronomers had believed for some time that parallax would provide the first accurate measurement of interstellar distances—in fact, in the 1830s there was a fierce competition between astronomers to be the first to measure a stellar parallax accurately.

In 1838 Bessel publicly announced that 61 Cygni had a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds; which, given the diameter of the Earth's orbit, indicated that the star is 10.3 lightyears away (by today's measurement of 11.4 lightyears, Bessel's estimation did only deviate by ca. 10%). Another major discovery by Bessel was that the two bright stars Sirius and Procyon execute minute motions that could be explained only by assuming that they had invisible companions disturbing their motions. The existence of such bodies, now named Sirius B and Procyon B, was confirmed with more powerful telescopes after Bessel’s death [3]. Besides these activities, he was ordered to undertake a geodetical survey of East Prussia ("Ostpreussische Gradmessungen"). From the differences between geodetical and astronomical coordinates, Bessel derived the figure of Earth as an oblated spheroid with ellipticity 1/299.15 (Bessel Normal Ellipsoid). Bessel also contributed significantly to mathematics and invented the so-called Bessel functions (also called cylindrical functions) in 1824.

Bessel died in Königsberg on March 17, 1846 at age 62 from a long mysterious disease which we now know was probably intestine cancer.

At yovisto you can learn more about astronomy in a popular lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Jean Picard and his Love for Accuracy

Jean-Félix Picard
(1620 – 1682)
On July 21, 1620, French astronomer, cartographer and hydraulic engineer Jean-Félix Picard was born. He is regarded as the founder of modern astronomy in France. He introduced new methods, improved the old instruments, and added new devices, such as Huygens' pendulum clock to record times and time intervals.

Jean-Félix Picard was born as a son of a bookseller and was allowed to study at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand, which was considered one of the best educational centers in France. It is assumed that he left the institution without a degree and moved to Paris due to the unstable situation in France. In Paris, he met the well established astronomer and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. He motivated Picard to study astronomy and Picard was allowed to assist with observations of solar and lunar eclipses. Picard became a professor of astronomy, as it is assumed, in 1655. He continued his career at the College de France in Paris, but unfortunately, there is no published work by Picard known from this period.

However, it is known that he exchanged letters with Christian Huygens, Ole Rømer, and Giovanni Cassini and it is assumed that he was highly respected as a scientist at that time. Also, he became one of the first members of the Academie Royal des Sciences one year after its founding in 1666. Between 1669 and 1670, Picard was the first person to measure the size of the Earth to a reasonable degree of accuracy, building on Maurolycus's methodology and Snellius's mathematical discoveries. Picard was honored with a pyramid at Juvisy-sur-Orge for his significant scientific effort. He was able to achieve this by measuring one degree of latitude along the Paris Meridian using triangulation along thirteen triangles stretching from Paris to the clock tower of Sourdon, near Amiens. His measurements produced a result of 110.46 km for one degree of latitude, which gives a corresponding terrestrial radius of 6328.9 km. The polar radius has now been measured at just over 6357 km. This was an error only 0.44% less than the modern value. This was another example of advances in astronomy and its tools making possible advances in cartography. Picard was the first to attach a telescope with crosswires to a quadrant, and one of the first to use a micrometer screw on his instruments. The quadrant he used to determine the size of the Earth had a radius of 38 inches and was graduated to quarter-minutes. The sextant he used to find the meridian had a radius of six feet, and was equipped with a micrometer to enable minute adjustments. These equipment improvements made the margin of error only ten seconds, as opposed to Tycho Brahe's four minutes of error. This made his measurements 24 times as accurate. It is believed that Isaac Newton used this value in his theory of universal gravitation. Picard's method and measurements were the topic of his Mesure de la terre, published in 1671.

He was also an important member of the team that began to compile a map of France based on scientific principles and he became a major figure in the development of scientific cartography. In 1673 he was at the Paris observatory collaborating with Cassini, Rømer, and La Hire on the institute's regular project of observations. Picard directed his attention to other projects of the Académie such as the surveying operations at Marly and Versailles. For example he became active in the problem of supplying Versailles with water. He also performed barometric experiments and became generally more and more active in the field of physics. Picard published scientific papers on hydraulics and optics. He made several suggestions to improve the telescope and left behind manuscripts on dioptrics.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video on the CNES mission, named after the French scientist Jean-Félix Picard. CNES's Picard microsatellite is designed to simultaneously measure parameters such as the Sun's speed of rotation, radiated power, sunspots, figure and diameter, in order to better understand its inner workings.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sir John Reith and the BBC

On July 20, 1889, John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith, was born. Sir John Reith was the first General-Director of the British Broadcasting Corporation and regarded as one of BBCs founding fathers. His concept of broadcasting as a way of educating the masses marked for a long time the BBC and similar organizations around the world.

John Reith was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.

John Charles Walsham Reith was born on July 20th 1889 at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, UK, as the youngest, by ten years, of seven children. His family were holidaying there from Glasgow, where his father George was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. Reith was educated at The Glasgow Academy then at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. His father refused to support any further education and apprenticed him as an engineer at the North British Locomotive Company. Serving in World War I, Reith was struck in the cheek by a bullet in October 1915, at which time he was a Lieutenant, and transferred to the Royal Engineers, where he resigned his Territorial Army commission in 1921 in the rank of a captain.

Reith had no broadcasting experience when he replied to an advertisement in The Morning Post for a General Manager for an as-yet unformed British Broadcasting Company in 1922. He later admitted that he felt he possessed the credentials necessary to manage any company. In his new role, he was "confronted with problems of which I had no experience: Copyright and performing rights; Marconi patents; associations of concert artists, authors, playwrights, composers, music publishers, theatre managers, wireless manufacturers.". Slowly but surely, Reith began to advance into the unknown medium of public radio transmission, organising, experimenting and innovating. Realising the almost unlimited possibilities of broadcasting, and that it must eventually become a public service, he began to shape his organisation in that direction.

The two of the main objects of Reith's policy were to establish the independence of the BBC from any form of interference and to build an unassailable programme. In 1925 the Government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Crawford to consider the future of British broadcasting, where Reith prepared a plan for a public broadcasting service. According to his plans, news presentations would always be of the highest quality, and Sunday observance was strictly enforced. When the General Strike broke out in 1926, and the value of broadcasting as a governmental and political instrument became apparent, Winston Churchill and others in the Government wanted to commandeer the organisation for the emergency. Reith refused to comply, maintaining the BBC's independence. He won the argument, but made an enemy of Churchill for years to come.

Actually, the BBC was part-share owned by a committee of members of the wireless industry. Although opposed by some (including in Government), the BBC became a corporation in 1927 and Reith was knighted the same year. Reith's autocratic approach became the stuff of BBC legend. His preferred approach was one of benevolent dictator, but with built-in checks to his power. In 1938, with his work for broadcasting completed and his ideals established as traditions, he resigned to become managing director of Imperial Airways. But, two years later, when Britain was at war, he left this post to become Minister of Information under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. When Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in May 1940, old animosities prevailed and he was quickly transferred, first to the Ministry of Transport and then to the Ministry of Works and Buildings. He was also elevated to the House of Lords, becoming Baron Reith of Stonehaven. After the war, his sense of purpose was revived in his chairmanships of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, from 1946 to 1950, and the Colonial Development Corporation, 1950 to 1959.

When the BBC introduced the Reith Lectures in 1947 it was honouring the Corporation's debt to the man whose far-sightedness and clarity of purpose in early British broadcasting had demanded technical inventiveness and social conscience in equal proportions. At the age of 81, John Reith died in Edinburgh after a fall in 1971.

This is a British Pathé newsreel of MS. Sir John Reith, Minister of Information speaking at the Cinematography Exhibitors Association in 1940.

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