Monday, November 24, 2014

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alfonso X from Spain and the Alfonsine Tables

Alfonso X
On November 23, 1221, Spanish King and astronomer Alfonso X of Castile was born, who encouraged the preparation of revised planetary tables. These “Alfonsine Tables” a revision and improvement of the Ptolemaic tables, were the best available during the Middle Ages.

 Alfonso was born in Toledo, Spain. It is not much known about his early life. However, it is widely believed that he started his career as a soldier when he was only 16 years old, under the command of his father – Ferdinand III of Castile. He succeeded his father as King of Castile and León in 1252. [1]

During his reign, Alfonso developed an entire court in order to encourage and promote cosmopolitan learning. Numerous of his works were written in Arabic as well as Latin, which he had translated by the court into the vernacular Castilian language. This development encouraged the further advancement of scientific fields like literature, philosophy, and astronomy. [2]

Back then, the field of astronomy also included astrology and cosmology and Alfonso managed to gain quite a reputation in these fields. Alfonso commanded his scholars to produce new tables in order to update the Tables of Toledo, based on astronomical works and observations by Islamic astronomers, adding observations by astronomers Alfonso had gathered in Toledo. The first printed edition of the Alfonsine tables was probably published in 1483 and another followed in the later 15th century. It is assumed that Nicolaus Copernicus used the the second edition in his work, he is assumed to have bought a copy while at the University of Cracow, and to have it professionally bound with pieces of wood and leather. After the methods of Claudius Ptolemy, the year in the table was divided into 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds, which was quite close to the currently accepted figure. [2,3]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on ‘Rotation in Space‘ by Professor Crawford at Gresham College.

References and Further Reading:

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wiley Post and the Jetstream

Wiley Hardeman Post (1898-1935)
On November 22, 1898, US-american aviator Wiley Hardeman Post was born. Post was the first pilot to fly solo around the world and is also known for his work in high-altitude flying, where helped develop one of the first pressure suits and discovered the jet stream.

Wiley Post was born in Grand Saline, Texas, to cotton farmer parents William Francis and Mae Quinlan Post. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was five. He was an indifferent student, but managed to complete the sixth grade. Nevertheless, he was a mechanical genius who fixed things around the farm growing up. Wiley's first view of an aircraft in flight came in 1913 at the county fair in Lawton, Oklahoma. The event so inspired him that he immediately enrolled in the Sweeney Automobile and Aviation School in Kansas City. During World War I, Post wanted to become a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Service. Joining the training camp at the University of Oklahoma, he learned radio technology, but Germany already surrendered before he completed his training and the war ended. He went to work as a "roughneck" in the Oklahoma oilfields. The work was unsteady and he turned briefly to car jacking. He was arrested in 1921 and sent to the Oklahoma State Reformatory where he served 14 months of a ten-year sentence, before being paroled.

Post returned to the oil fields. An oil field accident in 1926 cost him his left eye, but the partial loss of vision did not prevent him from flying. Thus, he used part of the $1,800 settlement to buy his first airplane, a Canadian-built JN-4 "Canuck." Wiley Post's rise to fame began in 1930 when he won an air race between Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1931 he and navigator Harold Gatty flew around the top of the world in the Lockheed Vega 5-C aircraft named Winnie Mae from New York City to New York City in less than nine days. Actually, they arrived back after traveling 15,474 miles (24,903 km) in the record time of 8 days and 15 hours and 51 minutes. His first trip was chronicled in the book Around the World in Eight Days: The Flight of the Winnie Mae (1931).[1]

In 1933, Post repeated his round-the-world flight, but this time did it solo, with the aid of the auto-pilot and radio compass and shattered his previous around-the-world record with a time of seven days, eighteen hours, and forty-nine minutes. After his record-breaking flights he experimented with high-altitude flying. Because the Winnie Mae was not pressurized, he designed a pressure suit, with technical assistance from B.F. Goodrich Company. The first suit ruptured during a pressure test. The redesigned second suit used the same helmet as the first but when tested was too tight and they were unable to remove it from Post, so they had to cut him out thus destroying the suit. The third suit was redesigned from the previous two. The suit was constructed of double-ply rubberized parachute cloth glued to a frame with pigskin gloves, rubber boots and an aluminum & plastic diver's helmet. It had arm and leg joints that permitted easy operation of the flight controls and also enabled walking to and from the aircraft. The helmet had a removable faceplate that Post could seal when he reached a height of 6,000 meter, a liquid oxygen source breathing system, and could accommodate earphones and a throat microphone.[2]

Ultimately, his experimental flights proved the value of using the east-to-west jet stream. Post's pressure suit was a predecessor for the test pilots' and astronauts' pressure suits used in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1935 Wiley Post constructed a hybrid floatplane from a Lockheed Orion. He wanted to test the operational capabilities of the aircraft with a long-distance flight. He asked friend and humorist Will Rogers to join him on a junket to Alaska and Siberia. Unfortunately, the hybrid Orion proved to be aerodynamically unstable. Shortly after takeoff in the fog on August 15, 1935, Post lost control of the aircraft. It crashed into the Walakpa Lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska killing both Post and Rogers. Wiley Post's remains were transported to Oklahoma for burial.[1] Shortly after Post's death his widow sold the famed Winnie Mae to the Smithsonian.

At yovisto you can learn more about the future of aviation and space flight in the presentation from Marc Millis on 'Space Flight Predictions: After AI & Transhumanism'

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Friday, November 21, 2014

William Beaumont and the human digestion

Physiology of digestion, William Beaumont
Image Source
On November 21, 1785, US-american surgeon William Beaumont was born. He became best known as "Father of Gastric Physiology" following his research on human digestion.

William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Connecticut and became a physician. He served as a surgeon's mate in the Army during the War of 1812. He opened a private practice in Plattsburgh, New York, but rejoined the Army as a surgeon in 1819. Beaumont was stationed at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in Michigan in the early 1820s when it existed to protect the interests of the American Fur Company. The fort became the refuge for a wounded 19-year-old French-Canadian fur trader named Alexis St. Martin when a shotgun went off by accident in the American Fur Company store and duck shot tore into his abdomen at close range June 6th, 1822. St. Martin's wound was quite serious because he stomach was perforated and several ribs were broken. Nobody really expected that the young man would survive but he really did. The skin around St. Martin's wound fused to the hole in his stomach, leaving a permanent opening - a gastric fistula. [1]

Beaumont quickly noticed that there was much research potential. Back then, not too much was known about the digestive system. In order to gain more information, Beaumont performed numerous experiments on St. Martin over a period of eight years. The experiments must have been really uncomfortable for the man, who was inserted bits of different foods tied to strings through the hole in his stomach, pulling them out periodically to observe digestion. Beaumont also removed gastric juice, examining it to better understand its nature. Beaumont became the "Father of Gastric Physiology" and his findings were published in the book "Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion" in 1833. The work is now considered as the basis of much of the early knowledge on digestion.

William Beaumont discovered that hydrochloric acid is the main chemical responsible for breaking down food and he suggested that another important digestive chemical, which is now known as pepsin. He suggested that digestion is a chemical process, not merely a mechanical one caused by stomach muscle movement. Also, Beaumont gave insights on how emotions, temperature, and physical activity can affect digestion. Beaumont's famous patient, St. Martin, outlived the scientist even though his wound never completely healed. He had several children and died at the age of 83. [2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on The Digestive System.

References and Further Reading:
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Selma Lagerlöf and the wonderful Adventures of Niels Holgersson

Cover of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils
On November 20, 1858, Swedish author and Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf was born. She is best known for her children's book 'The Wonderful Adventures of Nils'. Moreover, she was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

Selma Lagerlöf attended a teachers college in Stockholm and became a teacher at the girls' secondary school in Landskrona. Lagerlöf had been writing poetry for a long time, but never published anything until 1890. She received the first prize in a literary competition and began publishing excerpts from the book which was to be her first, best, and most popular work. Gösta Berlings Saga was published in 1891, but went unnoticed until its Danish translation received wide critical acclaim and paved the way for the book's lasting success in Sweden and elsewhere. She received financial support from the royal family and the Swedish Academy, which enabled her to give up teaching completely and focus on writing. Lagerlöf traveled to Italy and published 'The Miracles of Antichrist' in 1897, followed by 'Jerusalem' in 1900. However, to her most famous books belongs the book 'Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige', published in 1906. [1]

The book starts out with the young Nils Holgersson, who takes delight in hurting the animals at his family's farm. The boy catches a tomte while his family is out at church and Nils, who refuses to let the tomte free is turned into a tomte as well. The shrunken boy is now able to talk to the farm animals, who are delighted to see Nils being so tiny and they seek revenge. Meanwhile, wild geese are flying over the farm and a white farm goose attempts to join them. Nils holds on to the bird's neck as it successfully takes off and joins the wild birds. Those are not too pleased to be joined by a boy and a domestic goose, but they take both on several adventures across Sweden. The goose and Nils have to accomplish several tasks in order to be accepted by the group. Also, Nils learns that the tomte might change him back to regular size, if he did good. [2]

The story around Nils' adventures became so well known in Sweden, that a picture of Nils Holgersson, on the back of a goose flying over the plains of Scania, was printed on the reverse side of the Swedish 20 krona banknote. Several film adaptations have been produced all over the world and even a very successful anime series was produced.

At yovisto, you may be interested in the video 'Pixar - a Human Story of Computer Animation'

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal

Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894)
On November 19, 1805, French diplomate and later developer of the Suez Canal Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps was born. The Suez Canal that was constructed under de Lessep's suvervision in 1869 joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas, substantially reducing sailing distances and times between the West and the East.

Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles, Yvelines, in 1805 into a family of French career-diplomats. His first years were spent in Italy, where his father was occupied with his consular duties. He was educated at the College of Henry IV in Paris. From the age of 18 years to 20 he was employed in the commissary department of the army. From 1825 to 1827 he acted as assistant vice-consul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d'affaires. This uncle was an old companion of French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse and the only survivor of the expedition in which La Pérouse perished.

Following the profession of his father, Ferdinand de Lesseps during his early career was posted to Tunisia and Egypt. In 1832 de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. Fortunately for de Lesseps, Mehemet Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, owed his position in part to the recommendations made on his behalf to the French government by Mathieu de Lesseps, who was consul-general in Egypt when Ali was a colonel. Because of this, de Lesseps received a warm welcome from the viceroy and became good friends with his son, Said Pasha. De Lesseps became fascinated with the cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East and the growth of western European trade. After postings to Spain and Italy, in 1849 he retired after a disagreement with the French government, and never again occupied any public office.[1]

In 1854, De Lessep's friend Said Pasha became the new viceroy of Egypt. De Lesseps immediately returned to Egypt, where he was given a warm welcome and, soon afterwards, permission to begin work on the Suez Canal for which he had been inspired by reading about Napoleon's abandoned plans for a canal that would allow large ships wishing to sail to the east to go directly from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, thereby cutting out the long sea journey around Africa. On 7 November 1854 De Lesseps landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing him to build the Suez Canal.

A first scheme, directed by Lesseps, was immediately drawn up by the surveyors Linant Bey and Mougel Bey providing for direct communication between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and, after being slightly modified, it was adopted by an international commission of engineers in 1856.[2] The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was organized at the end of 1858. On 25 April 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by de Lesseps at Port Said. During the following ten years, de Lesseps had to overcome the continuing opposition of the British government preventing the Sultan from approving the construction of the canal, and at one stage he even had to seek the support of his cousin, Empress Eugenie, to persuade the Emperor Napoleon III to act as arbitrator in the disputes. Finally, on 17 November 1869, the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha. Despite several futile trials, de Lesseps had failed to get also support for his project by the British government. British attitudes finally changed when the canal was seen to be a success and de Lesseps was treated as a great celebrity on his subsequent visit to Britain. In 1875, the Egyptian government sold its shares in the canal and the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, bought effective control of the Canal Company.

In his 74th year, de Lesseps began to plan a new canal in Panama. In 1879, an international congress was held in Paris, which chose the route for the Panama Canal and appointed de Lesseps as leader of the undertaking. However, the decision to dig a Panama Canal at sea level to avoid the use of locks, and the inability of contemporary medical science to deal with epidemics of malaria and yellow fever, doomed the project. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entered liquidation in February 1889. The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the Panama Canal Scandal, after rumors circulated that French politicians and journalists had received bribes. A French court found de Lesseps and his son Charles guilty of mismanagement. Both were heavily fined and sentenced to imprisonment. In the event, de Lesseps did not go to jail, but his son paid for his elderly father's misjudgements with a year in prison. De Lesseps died on 7 December 1894.

At yovisto you can learn more about the work on the Suez Canal and European politics in the 19th century in the lecture "European Imperialism and its Zenith" of Prof. Dr. Thomas W. Laqueur from University of Berkeley.

References and further Reading:
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Walt Disney's 'Steamboat Willie' and the Rise of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse star in Walk of Fame
Image by Flickr user freshwater2006
On November 18, 1928, Walt Disney's animated movie 'Steamboat Willie' was released that presented his most famous character 'Mikey Mouse' for the very first time. The film is also notable for being the first cartoon with synchronized sound.

The movie was produced in black-and-white and debuts Mickey Mouse as well as his girlfriend Minnie. Even though it was the third of Mickey's films to be produced, it was the first to be distributed. The movie starts out with Mickey steering a river steamboat until the boat's real captain Pete appears, who orders Mickey off the bridge. Mickey and Pete then proceed to fight back and forth on the ship while they accidentally trip and fall. Eventually, Minnie appears on board and the two mice proceed to make music together using the animals aboard. Meanwhile, Pete gets angry again, ordering Mickey to peel the potatoes. A parrot appears, who makes fun of the mouse and Mickey throws a potato at him, which knocks the parrot into the river.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit used to be the star of Disney's and he was one of the first cartoon characters that had personality. However, Disney lost the rights to the character and Mickey Mouse was intended to become the new star. The first films starring Mickey Mouse were silent films and did not really impress the audiences. No distributor was found and Disney came to realize that adding sound to a cartoon would probably increase its appeal. However, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon synchronized sound. Dave and Max Fleischer's Inkwell Studios produced 19 sound cartoons in the mid 1920s using the Phonofilm sound-on-film process. Unfortunately, the sound could not be synchronized completely. Steamboat Willie was produced using a click track to keep his musicians on the beat. Back then, click track meant that optical marks were made on the film to indicate precise timings for musical accompaniment.

Initially, the producers had doubts about the sound in a cartoon and Disney arranged a test screening with a small audience consisting of Disney employees and their wives. The live sound accompanied the partly finished film Steamboat Willie. Behind the movie screen, a bed sheet was installed along with a microphone and speakers. The sound, consisting of a mouth organ, percussion and several 'special effects' like bells and whistles, was produced from behind the sheet. The audience loved it and a company was hired to professionally produce the sound system as well as the Green Brothers Novelty Band for the final soundtrack. Steamboat Willie premiered at Universal's Colony Theater in New York City on November 18, 1928 and was an instant success which caused Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse international fame.

At yovisto, you may be interested in the lecture 'The Power of Cartoons' by Patrick Chappatte.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Eugene Wigner and the Structure of the Atomic Nucleus

Eugene Paul Wigner (1902-1995)
On November 17, 1902, Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician Eugene Paul Wigner was born. He is best known for for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles for which he shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Maria Goeppert.

Wigner Jenő Pál was born as the middle of his parents' three children in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, to middle class Jewish parents, Elisabeth (Einhorn) and Anthony Wigner, director of a leather-tanning factory. From the time he was five years old Wigner was given private tuition at home. After graduating at the Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium, Wigner enrolled at the Budapest University of Technical Sciences. He was not happy with the courses on offer, and in 1921 enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, where he studied chemical engineering and attended colloquia with Einstein, Planck, von Laue, and Nernst. He also met the physicist Leó Szilárd, who at once became Wigner's closest friend. Wigner obtained the degree of Dr. Ing. in 1925 from the Technische Hochschule in Berlin with a thesis Bildung und Zerfall von Molekülen ("Formation and Decay of Molecules") supervised by Michael Polanyi. Wigner's thesis contains the first theory of the rates of association and dissociation of molecules.

Having completed his doctorate, Wigner returned to Budapest to join his father's tannery firm as planned. However, things did not go too well. Wigner's father supported him taking the post in Berlin, where he accepted an offer from Karl Weissenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Weissenberg wanted someone to assist him with his work on x-ray crystallography, and Polanyi had recommended Wigner. [2] Wigner received a request from Arnold Sommerfeld to work in Göttingen as an assistant to the great mathematician David Hilbert. This proved a disappointment, as Hilbert's interests had shifted to logic. Wigner nonetheless studied independently. He laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics and in 1927 introduced what is now known as the Wigner D-matrix.

An offer to spend a term in Princeton saw him travel to the United States at the end of 1930. From 1930 to 1933 Wigner spent part of the year at Princeton, part at Berlin. His Berlin post vanished under the Nazi rules passed in 1933 and from then, except for the years 1936 - 1938 in Wisconsin, Wigner spent the rest of his career at Princeton.[2] In 1937, Wigner became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1939, it was Wigner, who introduced Leó Szilárd to Albert Einstein for a meeting that resulted in the Einstein-Szilárd letter which urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs. During the Manhattan Project, Wigner led a team that was to design the production nuclear reactors that would convert uranium into weapons grade plutonium. At the time, reactors existed only on paper, and no reactor had yet gone critical. In July 1942, Wigner chose a conservative 100 MW design, with a graphite neutron moderator and water cooling, which led to the successful development of the world's first atomic reactor, Chicago Pile One (CP-1) that achieved a nuclear chain reaction in 1942.

In 1946, Wigner accepted a position as director of research and development at Clinton Laboratory (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Not an administrator by background or temperament, Wigner left after a year and returned to teaching and research at Princeton University.[3] In 1963, Wigner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with American physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer and German physicist J.H.D. Jensen, for work on the structure of the atomic nucleus. He professed to never have considered the possibility that this might occur, and he added: "I never expected to get my name in the newspapers without doing something wicked." Wigner also won the Enrico Fermi award in 1958, and the National Medal of Science in 1969. Near the end of his life, Wigner's thoughts turned more philosophical. He became interested in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, particularly its ideas of the universe as an all pervading consciousness. Eugene Paul Wigner died in Princeton on January 1, 1995.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short video lecture by Tyler DeWitt on the 'Atomic Structure: Discovery of the Neutron'

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Eugenio Beltramy and Non-Euclidian Geometry

Eugenio Beltrami (1835-1900)
On November 16, 1835, Italian mathematician Eugenio Beltrami was born. He is most notable for his work concerning differential geometry and mathematical physics. His work was noted especially for clarity of exposition. He was the first to prove consistency of non-Euclidean geometry by modeling it on a surface of constant curvature, the pseudosphere.

Eugenio Beltrami was born in Cremona in Lombardy, then a part of the Austrian Empire, and now part of Italy. The son of an artist who painted miniatures, young Eugenio certainly inherited artistic talents from his family, but in his case in addition to the mathematical talents he would acquire, it was music rather than painting that became important in his life. He began studying mathematics at University of Pavia in 1853, but was expelled from Ghislieri College in 1856 due to his political opinions. During this time he was taught and influenced by Francesco Brioschi, who had been appointed as professor of applied mathematics at the University of Pavia the year before Beltrami began his studies. Beltrami had to discontinue his studies because of financial hardship and spent the next several years as a secretary working for the Lombardy–Venice railroad company first in Verona and later in Milan.

While Beltrami was in Milan the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, an important political event which did much to invigorate the academic scene in Italy. Beltrami began to work hard at his mathematical studies again and in 1862 he published his first paper. As a result, he was appointed to the University of Bologna as a professor in 1862. In 1870, a new University of Rome was set up in the new Italian capital and Beltrami was appointed to the chair of rational mechanics there in 1873. After three years in Rome, Beltrami moved to Pavia to take up the chair of mathematical physics there. However, Beltrami returned to Rome in 1891 and spent his last years teaching there.[1] He became the president of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1898 and, the following year, a senator of the kingdom. A lover of music, Beltrami was interested in the relationship between mathematics was interested in the relationship between mathematics and music.[2]

M.C.Escher, Circle Limit IV, illustrating hyperbolic geometry
In 1868 Beltrami published two memoirs dealing with consistency and interpretations of non-Euclidean geometry of Bolyai and Lobachevsky. Beltrami proposed that this geometry could be realized on a surface of constant negative curvature, a pseudosphere. For Beltrami's concept, lines of the geometry are represented by geodesics on the pseudosphere and theorems of non-Euclidean geometry can be proved within ordinary three-dimensional Euclidean space, and not derived in an axiomatic fashion, as Lobachevsky and Bolyai had done previously.

Already in 1840, Minding already considered geodesic triangles on the pseudosphere and remarked that the corresponding "trigonometric formulas" are obtained from the corresponding formulas of spherical trigonometry by replacing the usual trigonometric functions with hyperbolic functions; this was further developed by Codazzi in 1857, but apparently neither of them noticed the association with Lobachevsky's work. In this way, Beltrami attempted to demonstrate that two-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry is as valid as the Euclidean geometry of the space, and in particular, that Euclid's parallel postulate could not be derived from the other axioms of Euclidean geometry. It is often stated that this proof was incomplete due to the singularities of the pseudosphere, which means that geodesics could not be extended indefinitely.

In the second memoir "Fundamental theory of spaces of constant curvature", Beltrami continued this logic and gave an abstract proof of equiconsistency of hyperbolic and Euclidean geometry for any dimension. He accomplished this by introducing several models of non-Euclidean geometry that are now known as the Beltrami–Klein model, the Poincaré disk model, and the Poincaré half-plane model, together with transformations that relate them. Although today Beltrami's "Essay" is recognized as very important for the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the reception at the time was less enthusiastic. Beltrami also worked on optics, thermodynamics, elasticity, electricity and magnetism. His contributions to these topics appeared in the four-volume work, Opere Matematiche (1902-20), published posthumously.

At yovisto, you can learn more about Non-Euclidian geometry in the History of Mathematics lecture of Professor N. J. Wildberger "MathHist12 - Non-Euclidian Geometry".

References and Further Reading:
  • [1] O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Eugenio Beltrami", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
  • [2] Eugenio Beltrami at Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008
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If you like the daily blog posts of yovisto about the history of science, please support us by clicking on the amazon links and making your next amazon purchase via our offered links. Nevertheless, please do also support your local (real world) bookstore at the corner of the street.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bernard Mandeville and the Fable of the Bees

The Fable of Bees
On November 15, 1670, Dutch philosopher, political economist and satirist Bernard Mandeville was born. He became famous for The Fable of the Bees, a satire that suggests many key principles of economic thought, including division of labor and the "invisible hand", seventy years before these concepts were more thoroughly elucidated by Adam Smith.

Not very much is known about the life of Bernard Mandeville. He probably grew up in Rotterdam, Netherlands and was the son of a physician. He enrolled at Leiden University and produced his thesis De brutorum operationibus in 1689. In it, Mandeville advocated the Cartesian theory of automatism among animals. He received his degree in medicine in 1691 and his disputation was titled De chylosi vitiata. He became a well known and respected physician and produced several literary works as well, which were considered just as successful.

The Grumbling Hive was probably published in 1705 and in 1714, it was again published under the famous name of The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits. Next to the mentioned poem, a detailed discussion is included in the book. It consists numerous key principles of economic thought, such as the division of labour and the famous invisible hand. Mandeville describes a well working community of bees until the bees suddenly turn into honest and virtuous beings. Their community collapses due to the lack of the desire for personal benefits.

Mandeville explained that vice was necessary for economic prosperity, which was a quite scandalous point of view. Mandeville and also Adam Smith expressed that individual's collective actions may lead to a public benefit. However, Smith believed in a virtuous self-interest which results in invisible co-operation and that there was no need for someone to garner the benefit. Mandeville however thought that politicians had to ensure that the people's passions really resulted in public benefits. Back in the day, Mandeville's ideas were seen as degrading in concerns of the human nature.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations by Professor James Paradis.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Leo Baekeland and the Beginning of the Plastic Age

Bakelite Billiard Balls
Image: Chemical Heritage Foundation at Flickr
On November 14, 1863, Belgian-born American chemist Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland was born. His invention of Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry.

Leo Baekeland completed his doctorate at the University of Ghent and taught for a few years. He continued his studies of chemistry in New York City, England, Scotland, and Germany. He was then persuaded to stay in the United States and he began working at a New York photographic supply house, which inspired him for later developments, especially Velox, an improved photographic paper that could be developed in gaslight rather than sunlight. [1]

The Velox photographic paper was sold to Kodak and Baekeland was able to maintain a home laboratory and hire the assistant Nathaniel Thurlow. Both knew of the great potential phenol-formaldehyde resins and they read about the experiments by Adolf von Baeyer and Werner Kleeberg. They reported that when he mixed phenol, a common disinfectant, with formaldehyde, it formed a hard, insoluble material that ruined his laboratory equipment, because once it has formed, it could not be removed. The produced substance was described as a hard amorphous mass, infusible and insoluble and thus of little use. Further scientists, including Adolf Luft performed several experiments in order to create a commercially viable plastic molding compound. However, none of them was known to have created a useful product.

At that time, many chemists began recognizing that many of the natural resins and fibers useful for coatings, adhesives, and woven fabrics were polymers even though its molecular structure was not completely known. When Baekeland and his assistant started to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, they produced 'Novolak', but unfortunately, this was never really successful. The scientists moved on to developing a phenol-formaldehyde binder for asbestos. They managed to carefully control the pressure and temperature applied to an intermediate made from the two reagents, he produced a polymer that produced a hard moldable plastic when it was mixed with certain fillers and Bakelite was born. [1,2, 3]

Bakelite had the advantage, that it could be molded quickly. Also, it was known for its extraordinarily high resistance and thus, became a popular material for the emerging electrical and automobile industries. Soon, Bakelite was integrated in numerous areas of living. Jewelry was made out of it as well as telephones, or even billiard balls (see picture above). [1]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a talk by Diana Cohen on 'Tough truths about plastic pollution'.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dorothea Erxleben - Germany's First Female Medical Doctor

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben
(1715 – 1762)
On November 13, 1715, Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, first female medical doctor in Germany was born. It was very hard for her to overcome the prejudices of the University professors and to finish her studies with a proper examination. What is even worse is that it should take until 1901 that the second woman in Germany was able to make her exams as a doctor.

Already Erxleben's father was a doctor in Aschersleben, Germany. It is known that from early age, she showed much interest in nature science and that she proved to be quite smart. The director of her school was giving her Latin classes as a free time activity and her father and uncle taught her in theoretical and practical medicine as well as nature scientific topics. Dorothea Erxleben was educated almost in the same way her brother did and aimed at an academic degree. However, she was not accepted at the university and her father wrote a letter to Frederick the Great who then advised the University of Halle to admit the young student. Then however, Dorothea did not accept the offer. [1,2]

She began to practice medicine in her hometown, but was not welcomed due to the lack of a formal education and degree. As she was accused by many to be only an amateur scientist, she wrote a long letter explaining her situation and that it was a shame that women were not able to freely attend the university like men. She continued practicing in her father's doctor's office next to raising her four children. Unfortunately, a patient died during Erxleben's treatment and she was again accused as a dilettante. She decided to catch up on her degree and went back to university. Her dissertation from 1755 was titled "Quod nimis cito ac iucunde curare saepius fiat caussa minus tutae curationis" and was successful. [1,2]

Unfortunately, women were officially allowed to be examined in medicineand pharmaceutics only in 1899. At Halle, one department of the hospital was named after Erxleben and even a theater play was written for her. Dorothea Erxleben passed away on June 13, 1762. [1,2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in the lecture 'On the History of Women in Science' by Professor Susanne Williams.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sir James Young Simpson and the Chloroform

Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet (1811-1870)
On November 12, 1847, Scottish obstetrician and important figure in the history of medicine Sir James Young Simpson published his self trial experiments with the new anesthetic chloroform.
"All pain is per se and especially in excess, destructive and ultimately fatal in its nature and effects." (James Young Simpson)
Simpson was born in Bathgate near Edinburg, West Lothian, Scotland, as the seventh son and eighth child of an impecunious baker. Simpson attended the University of Edinburgh from the age of only 14, graduating at the age of 18 but, as he was so young, had to wait two years before he got his license to practice medicine. In 1838 he designed the Air Tractor, the earliest known vacuum extractor to assist childbirth but the method did not become popular until the invention of the ventouse over a century later. At the age of 28 he was appointed to the Chair of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh, here he became a pioneer in obstetrics and gynecology.

He improved the design of obstetric forceps that to this day are known in obstetric circles as "Simpson's Forceps" and, like German physician Ignaz Semmelweis, fought against the contagion of puerperal sepsis. His most noted contribution should be the introduction of anaesthesia to childbirth. Simpson, unlike most medical men of his day, was quite concerned about the pain his patients suffered during childbirth, and searched for ways to alleviate it. While visiting London, he met with the surgeon Robert Lister, who praised the use of ether as an anesthetic in a recent operation. Already in 1799, Sir Humphry Davy used nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as the first anaesthetic. Ether, however, was not conducive for obstetrics, so Simpson continued to experiment with different chemical compounds.[3]

In 1847, the same year he was appointed physician to Queen Victoria while she was visiting in Scotland, Simpson discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform. Together with two of his friends, Drs Keith and Duncan, Simpson used to sit every evening in his dining room to try new chemicals to see if they had any anaesthetic effect. On 4 November 1847 they decided to try a ponderous material named chloroform that they had previously ignored. On inhaling the chemical they found that a general mood of cheer and humour had set in. But suddenly all of them collapsed only to regain consciousness the next morning. Simpson knew, as soon as he woke up, that he had found something that could be used as an anaesthetic. It was very much by chance that Simpson survived the chloroform dosage he administered to himself. If he had inhaled too much and died, chloroform would have been seen as a dangerous substance, which in fact it is.

Simpson was the first to utilize chloroform as an anesthetic to ease the pain of childbirth. This practice was initially opposed by the Church because it tampered with the Divine Order. According to Genesis the pain of childbirth was the Lord's punishment on womankind for Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge. The controversy surrounding this practice quickly disappeared after Queen Victoria used chloroform to help her deliver Prince Leopold in 1853.[3] But, Simpson's medical contributions extended beyond obstetric anaesthesia. Simpson pioneered the uterine sound, long forceps, wire sutures, and improved statistical analysis of operative outcomes. He wrote important memoirs on fetal pathology and hermaphroditism, and made contributionsto the fields of archeology and medical history.

Simpson was honoured with a first baronet in 1866. He died four years later in 1870 at the age of 59 in his home. The day of his funeral was declared a day of public mourning in Edinburgh and two thousand people followed his hearse through streets lined by over 30,000 mourners.[2]

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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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Louis Antoine de Bougainville and his Voyage Around the World

Bougainville reaching Tahiti
Probably on November 11, 1729, French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville was born. A contemporary of James Cook, gained fame for his expeditions, the first recorded settlement on the Falkland Islands and his voyages into the Pacific Ocean. The largest of the Solomon Islands is named after him, as is the colorful tropical climbing plant bougainvillaea.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville was born in Paris and began to study law, which he abandoned shortly after. Bougainville joined the army in 1753 and was sent to London as secretary to the French embassy three years later. During the Seven Years' War, Bougainville gained experience at sea. Also, he participated in the defense of Quebec City and later became a diplomat taking part in negotiating the Treaty of Paris that eventually conceded most of New France to the British Empire.

After the war, the French decided to colonize the Falkland Islands, which were not well known at this time. Bougainville decided to travel there on his own expense. He set out in 1763 with the Eagle and the Sphinx and they reached the French Bay in 1764. The explorer then received the permission to circumnavigate the globe in the 1760s and he would become the first known French to sail around the world. It is assumed that this was also the first expedition to carry professional naturalists and geographers aboard. The crew traveled with two ships, La Boudeuse with 214 men and Étoile with 116 men. The botanist Philibert Commerçon named the flower Bougainvillea. Also on board was Jeanne Baret, who joined the expedition disguised as a man, calling herself Jean Baret. She enlisted as valet and assistant to Commerçon, but that is a whole different story.

Bougainville visited the island of Otaheite. From Tahiti, the crew sailed westward to southern Samoa and the New Hebrides. They had to change plans because they almost ran into heavy breakers. Bougainville almost discovered the Great Barrier Reef and sailed towards Solomon Islands. The expedition was attacked probably by people from New Ireland and they headed towards the Moluccas. The expedition managed to complete the mission with the loss of seven men. In the 1770s, Bougainville published his travel log titled as Le voyage autour du monde, par la frégate La Boudeuse, et la flûte L'Étoile. In it, the geographical, biological, and anthropologic findings of Argentina, Patagonia, Tahiti, and Indonesia were explained.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on the Age of Discovery by Jim Bennett.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Robert Morison and the Classification of Plants

Robert Morison (1620-1683)
On November 10, 1683, Scottish botanist and taxonomist Robert Morison passed away. A forerunner of naturalist John Ray, he elucidated and developed the first systematic classification of plants.

Born in 1620 in Aberdeen, Scotland, as son of John Morison by his wife Anna Gray, Robert Morison was an outstanding scholar who gained his Master of Arts degree and Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen at the age of eighteen. He devoted himself at first to mathematics, and studied Hebrew, being intended by his parents for the ministry; but his attachment to the royalist cause led him to bear arms.[1] During the English Civil War he joined the Royalist Cavaliers and was seriously wounded at the 1639 Battle of the Bridge of Dee during the Civil War. On recovering he fled to France when it became apparent that the cause was lost.

In France he applied himself to the study of anatomy, zoology, botany, mineralogy, and chemistry, studying Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and the best commentators, and in 1648 he took a doctorate in medicine at the University of Angers in Western France and from then on devoted himself entirely to the study of botany. On the recommendation of his tutor Vespasian Robin, the French king's botanist, he was received into the household of Gaston, Duke of Orleans, in 1649 or 1650, as one of his physicians, and as a colleague of Abel Bruyner and Nicholas Marchant, the keepers of the duke's garden at Blois, a post which he subsequently held for ten years.[1] He was sent by the Duke to Montpellier, Fontainebleau, Burgundy, Poitou, Brittany, Languedoc, and Provence in search of new plants, and seems to have explained to his patron his views on classification.

In 1660, despite inducements to make him stay in France, Morison returned to England at the invitation of the newly restored Charles II, where he became royal physician and Professor of Botany in Oxford in 1669. One of his first publications for the newly revived University Press was the Hortus Regius Blesensis (1669), the catalogue of the Blois garden to which Morison added the description of 260 previously un-described plants, although later many were considered only varieties and others were already well known.

Illustration from
Plantarum Umbelliferarum Distributio Nova
In the same year, Morison published Praeludia Botanica, a work which stressed using the structure of a plant's fruits for classification. At the time, classification focused on the habitat and medicinal properties of the plant and Morison's criticism of existing botanical systems caused some anger among his contemporaries. In the preface to his Plantarum Umbelliferarum Distributio Nova (1672), Morison gave a definitive statement of the principles of his method and was the first person ever to write a "monograph of a specific group of plants", the Umbelliferae. Carrot and parsley also belong to the family of Umbelliferae and are now called Apiaeae. They were identified already by Rembert Dodoens as a distinct group for the first time in 1583. Using a classification based on seed characteristics supplemented by differences in vegetative features, Morison divided plants with umbel type inflorescences into different genera of true umbellifers and those which were ‘Umbellae improprie dicto’ from different genera such as Valeriana, Filipendula, and Thalictrum.[2] Morison drew much criticism from his contemporaries as he stated that he had derived his schema from the book of Nature alone and did not mention his debt to Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino whose system he closely followed. Carl Linneaus wrote about Morison in a 1737 letter:
"Morison was vain, yet he cannot be sufficiently praised for having revived a system which was half expiring. If you look through Tournefort's genera you will readily admit how much he owes to Morison, full as much as the latter was indebted to Cesalpino, though Tournefort himself was a conscientious investigator. All that is good in Morison is taken from Cesalpino, from whose guidance he wanders in pursuit of natural affinities rather than of characters."
Morison was fatally injured by the pole of a carriage as he was crossing the street on 9 Nov. 1683 and died the following day.

At yovisto, you can learn more about botany in the video lecture on 'Human Livelihoods Depend on Wild Flowers: Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank explained'.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Florence Sabin - Preparing the Ground for Women in Medical Science

Florence Sabin
(1871 – 1953)
On November 9, 1871, American medical scientist Florence Rena Sabin was born. She was a pioneer for women in science. She was the first woman to hold a full professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to head a department at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

Florence Sabin was born in Colorado, but grew up with her Uncle Albert Sabin in Chicago and then with their paternal grandparents in Vermont. She earned her bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1893 and taught mathematics and zoology afterwards. Sabin then attended the John Hopkins University School of Medicine and graduated there as the first woman. Franklin Mall noticed Sabin's skills in the laboratory and the anatomist then helped the young woman to get involved in further projects and building up a good reputation.

As part of Mall's projects, Sabin produced a 3D model of a newborn baby’s brainstem. This project was considered successful and the textbook 'An Atlas of the Medulla and Midbrain' was published as a result in 1901. Another project focused on the embryological development of the lymphatic system which proved that the lymphatic system is formed from the embryo’s blood vessels. [1,2]

Sabin became an intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital followed by a research fellowship in the Department of Anatomy at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She began to teach at the Department in 1902 and was appointed full professor of embryology and histology in 1917. Florence Sabin was back then the first known woman in the position of the full professor at a medical college and the first female president of the American Association of Anatomists as well as the first lifetime woman member of the National Academy of Sciences. Sabin later focused her research on the origins of blood, blood vessels, blood cells, the histology of the brain, and the pathology and immunology of tuberculosis. She also became the head of the Department of Cellular Studies at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City.

After her retirement, Florence Sabin became involved in health projects in Colorado and published studies revealing the bad health situations all over the state. She fought against uninterested politicians and her effort was rewarded with new health bills which became known as the 'Sabin Health Laws'. She took part in modernizing the public health system and became manager of health and charities for Denver, donating her salary to medical research. Florence Sabin passed away on October 3, 1953. [3]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a TED Talk about Visualizing the medical data explosion by Anders Ynnerman.

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