Archive for the 'History' Category

It Was Good

Let there be light! Celebrating the theory of electromagnetism

There was also another controversy raging at the time, concerning the nature of light. It was known that light travelled through space with a finite speed, rather than leaping instantaneously from its source to our eyes.

But no-one knew, a century-and-a-half ago, what light was actually made of.

Most physicists agreed it travelled through space as a wave but they didn’t know what these light waves were made of, and they didn’t know how they got from one place to another. Maxwell was about to solve all these mysteries.

The Book I Read

I finally read a book that’s been in the queue. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

As side note, I’ll mention that I heard about this right after the book won the Pulitzer last year and was alerted to a local-boy-makes-good story in one of the upstate NY papers, sent to me by my mom. The author (Gilbert King) and I were in the same graduating class in high school. That combination was enough of a nudge to get me to buy it.

It’s a horrific tale of the pervasiveness of racism in our not-too-distant past, and the involvement of Thurgood Marshall in the case allows for his compelling story to be told as well, along with others involved in the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF). I had a little trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight, as the story jumps back and forth between the case and the history leading up to it, but I found it to be a captivating read. One gets a fairly raw look at the atmosphere of the times, including the reality that no person of color was likely to see justice done in any legal conflict that crossed the racial barrier — in a capital case such this, that the defendants would be found guilty was rarely in doubt, regardless of the facts, and it was considered a “victory” if the sentence came back as life in prison rather than the electric chair. The book tells of some truly heinous characters and lays out the LDF’s strategy of establishing grounds for appeal, because the only possibility for a result that came close to fair would only happen in courts far removed from the alleged crime.

It’s hard not to notice the similarities of this case with recent events in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere — that while some of the overt acts of violence stemming from racism have subsided — lynch mobs by people in sheets, as an example — far more behavior has only been masked and still pervades society. I’ll leave to others more eloquent than I to continue to delve in to commentary on all that, save for this: it’s too easy to say that things are better now than they were 60 years ago and leave it at that. To ignore it because for many of us it’s normally out of sight. To not believe the stories simply because we don’t experience it ourselves (a lot of parallels with sexual misconduct here as well). Social media has been a big step forward, as it has allowed for these events to be shared and not contained as a local, isolated incident. Maybe it can galvanize us enough to follow through to the next steps, to change the system and/or the people in the system, as necessary.

I’ve read that the rights to the book have been bought by Lionsgate, and they have given it a high priority. I hope this project doesn’t pull any punches. We got a glimpse of this kind of atmosphere in “Mississippi Burning”, including the collusion and overlap between law enforcement and the KKK, and “Devil in the Grove” shows us that the portrayal was not Hollywood embellishment. (It also shows the FBI wasn’t always so keen or successful in working civil rights cases — that transformation starts in the book’s span of history) There are a couple of story arcs in the book, where the attitudes of a few people are changed by their exposure to the hypocrisy of the situation and to the persuasiveness of Thurgood Marshall, which might lend themselves to some of Hollywood’s weaknesses (that can change “true story” into “based on a true story”). I say read the book — there is only so much a movie can include, anyway — and hope the movie doesn’t disappoint.

The Price of Discovery

My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her.

Interesting story, and an astute observation:

There is a common narrative in science of the tragic genius who suffers for a great reward, and the tale of Curie, who died from exposure to radiation as a result of her pioneering work, is one of the most famous. There is a sense of grandeur in the idea that paying heavily is a means of advancing knowledge. But in truth, you can’t control what it is that you find — whether you’ve sacrificed your health for it, or simply years of your time.

Hard work and intelligence is no guarantee of success, and some success is just pure luck. There are a number of scientists out there who will never win a Nobel, and it has nothing to do with their talent.

What's it Like?

What It Felt Like to Test the First Submarine Nuclear Reactor, with substantial quotes from an earlier article

This was of interest to me, owing to my ~5 year stint as an instructor in the nuke program. Some of the details point toward Rickover’s vision; things like realizing that more could be learned by building the test reactor in the same configuration that a sub’s reactor have in a submarine — starting with a prototype in any other configuration would leave too many unknowns when the “operational” configuration was built (making systems more compact invariably introduces new problems), and too much time would be wasted. And the general attitude of over-engineering the reactor — scaling down features is usually far easier than beefing up or adding new ones.

A Cold (War) Light

Weapons-Grade Private Enterprise

In 1991, the Cold War ended without making the world immediately safer. The Soviet Union had split up: Russia was dead broke, and much of its nuclear arsenal was split among the newly-independent countries of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, which were also broke. The reasonable fear was that the nuclear stuff and the nuclear scientists would go to the highest bidder. True, countries were negotiating how to get rid of nukes and the stuff of which nukes are made, but international negotiation is slow and international bidding likely to be much faster.

That fall of 1991, Neff wondered whether Russia could un-enrich its weapons-grade uranium, sell it to the U.S., and the U.S. would pay in dollars and use the un-enriched uranium to fuel its civilian nuclear reactors.

Interesting bit of swords-to-ploughshares history.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

I was poking around on the internet, following up on something I had read about the longitude prize (300 years old as of this summer)

Thomas Jefferson and the search for the longitude in America

Not surprising: Jefferson was interested in the longitude issue. He was very scientifically minded, so it’s reasonable a major science/technical issue of the day would be of interest. But here’s the thing — as a prominent face of things scientific, he was a crackpot magnet. (Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say a crackpot lodestone)

Jefferson apparently rued his status as an unofficial scientific clearing house, writing to a friend after a longitude projector approached him in the street that his ‘false reputation […] has made me a kind of Vortex into which the projects of our country are very much emptied’. Although he responded considerately to most supplicants, he feared ‘the sacrifice of the remains of my life in the investigation for others of projects which very often require a great deal of consideration, much research, and sometimes elaborate calculations’.


One troublesome consequence of his undaunted advocacy of a “method of ascertaining the longitude by the moon’s motion without a time piece” was a flood of methods more controversial than his own. Among his papers are even more letters from discoverers of longitude than from inventors of perpetual motion machines. Fellow longitude addicts seem to have been particularly hard for Jefferson to rebuff.

I find it interesting that he referred to his as a “false reputation” as an expert — I’m guessing that he properly viewed it that no matter what he knew, there was much that he did not, so he didn’t consider himself as an expert, even if he had the ability to debunk. Also that he was an advocate of the lunar method of determining longitude (making him a lunatic, of sorts)

But mostly it’s interesting to note, although it should be thoroughly unsurprising, that crackpots existed back in the day, and they would pester someone with a public presence and some sort of science credentials to comment on (and presumably endorse) their ideas.

300th Anniversary of the Longitude Act

Maritime museum finds time for celebration of Harrison’s sea clocks

The exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, passed in 1714, which established the Longitude Board and offered a vast £20,000 prize to anyone who could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea. It includes the actual act of parliament, passed in the last weeks before the death of Queen Anne, on display for the first time.

The story of John Harrison, the carpenter and self-taught genius clockmaker who invented a series of ever more accurate clocks and then a cabbage-sized watch that solved the problem, but never got the full prize from the board, inspired Dava Sobel’s bestselling book and film, Longitude.

This is the reason why my job (making atomic clocks — real clocks) is a navy job — precise navigation requires precise time. The transition to GPS hasn’t changed that fact. Poor navigational ability is costly:

In a storm in 1707, when an entire British fleet was driven onto the rocks at Scilly believing they were safely out at sea, more than 1,400 sailors drowned.

More: Why longitude mattered in 1714

Lincoln the Geek

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blew off steam by looking at the stars

Lincoln himself saw the metaphorical opportunities in the cosmos. When he was asked during the Civil War if his faith in the Union was misplaced, he replied with his memory of a Presbyterian deacon he boarded with in 1833. One night, the deacon had knocked on the door, certain that Judgment Day was at hand: The sky seemed to be falling.

Said Lincoln: “I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”

It was probably the Leonid meteor shower that had so shaken the deacon.

I was at the ceremony mentioned in the article. Great stories. I don’t think any recent presidents have come a-knockin’, especially now that we’re further away, though Vice President Gore did avail himself of his proximity and visited the nascent clock development lab, and Cheney did make an appearance nearby wielding a giant pair of scissors (but didn’t venture into the more science-y areas)

Not a One-Trick Pony

Millikan, Einstein, and Planck: The Experiment io9 Forgot

I object to the [io9] headline for reasons beyond the cheap sensationalism– it’s also overlooks half of the citation for Millikan’s 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics:

for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect

An important note that Millikan’s prize was not just for the oil drop experiment, and I am in agreement that this analysis (pdf) does a convincing job in debunking this old Millikan-fudged-his-data idea.

A Million Prescient Monkeys

A History of Books that Forecast the Future

As interesting as this is, it’s also an example of selection bias. Also: 2013 is the year for government spying on individuals, like this wasn’t happening earlier? really? But I digress…

Lots of stories appear to make predictions of the future, but are they really predictions or just fanciful things thought up by the author? What sci-fi devices haven’t come to pass? (How many have flying cars or superluminal travel of some sort, etc.?) That’s context that’s missing, because looking only at successful predictions (more on that in a moment) is the wrong way to look at it. If the author is truly a visionary maker of predictions, s/he has to be right more often than chance. It’s tough to measure that in an open-ended medium like storytelling, but one could at least do a systematic measure of it. Regardless, with myriad predictions, some are bound to be right. So what’s the success rate?

Also, how do you define success? For predictions that are vague it’s much easier to argue that it was successful, but of course vague predictions are next to useless precisely because they are vague. This is one element of how so-called psychics and their ilk make their livings – be vague enough that you can throw up your hands and declare success no matter what happens. I’m not familiar enough with the stories to know how much leeway the authors are being given.

The next step and the real trick — much harder IMO — is if the author was able to capture how society exploited the technology.

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