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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

November 9th was the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan , born in Brooklyn (1934). Sagan was a popular guest on TV shows, especially The Tonight Show, but he was also a serious scientist who worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions. Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”

Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos, which aired in 1980. Sagan originally planned to call the show Man and the Cosmos, but he considered himself a feminist, so he decided to leave off the “man.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, collaborated with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, to bring Cosmos back to television in 2014. MacFarlane also donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.

Sagan received a lot of fan mail over his career, many letters from people who shared their dreams and experiences, or their theories of extraterrestrial life, or simply thanked him for teaching them about astronomy. The more “out there” of the letters were filed in a box labeled “F/C,” which stood for “fissured ceramics” — Sagan’s code name for “crackpots.” People wrote to him about aliens that they had imprisoned in their basement, or the planets they had discovered. He was also approached by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor, and leader in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Leary wanted to build a kind of “space ark” and transport hundreds of people to a different star, and he consulted Sagan to find out which star he should aim for. Sagan had to tell him that the technology to pull off such a feat did not currently exist. Leary wrote back: “I am not impressed with your conclusions in these areas,” and suggested that all that was needed was “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”

Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

 

Marie Curie/Ground Breaking Chemist and Physicist

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

November 7th was the birthday of Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867). Curie discovered radium, without which we wouldn’t have X-rays or certain cancer therapies. Curie was born in Warsaw, which is now Poland, but used to be part of the Russian Empire. She went on to win two Nobel Prizes, but she always donated her prize money and remained humble about her achievements. She once summed up her potential biography as, “I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”

Curie came from a family of teachers who believed so strongly in education that her father brought home discarded test tubes from the laboratory at his school and encouraged Marie to perform experiments. Because she was a girl, she couldn’t go to University. So she began studying clandestinely at what was called a “Floating University,” a secret set of informal, underground classes held in Warsaw.

She met her husband, Pierre, after moving to France to further her studies. They set up a lab in a decrepit warehouse outside their atelier. The warehouse had an asphalt floor, a glass roof broken in several places, and was heated by a cast-iron stove in the winter. They worked on worn-out tables, often eating simple meals of bread washed down with water.

Curie often stirred the heavy and hot molten mass of radioactive products in a caldron herself, sometimes slipping samples in her pockets and forgetting about them. No one knew then about the harmful effects of radiation. When she died in 1934, it was attributed to four decades of exposure to radioactivity.

Curie and Pierre discovered radium and polonium in 1898. A watchcase containing a speck of the radium was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The label read, “Radium, discovered by Mme. Curie.”

During World War I, Curie and her daughter suggested that the armies equip automobiles with radiographic apparatus to treat the wounded, inadvertently inventing the X-ray and the ambulance at the same time. The X-ray could locate bullets and fragments in wounded soldiers, which meant quick, life-saving removal.

All of Marie Curie’s research materials and notes are too dangerous to examine because of their high level of radioactivity. They are kept in lead-lined boxes.

 

Ray Bradbury/Science Fiction Great

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

August 22 is the birthday of science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury , born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He spent a lot of his childhood in the Waukegan library, where he fell in love with L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. One summer he went to see a local carnival act named Mr. Electrico, a man who sat in an electrical chair and knighted audience members with a sword while electricity flowed through his body. When he reached Bradbury, he put the sword on his head and shouted at him, “Live Forever!” Bradbury couldn’t get that out of his head, and the next day he made his father drive him to the carnival again, even though his uncle had just died and he was supposed to be at the wake. Mr. Electrico introduced the boy to all the carnival performers and then sat with him on a sand dune and told Bradbury that the boy was the reincarnation of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, a man who had died in his arms during World War I. Ray Bradbury said that Mr. Electrico “gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past.” The next day his family moved cross-country, and as soon as they got to their new house, Ray Bradbury got out a piece of butcher paper and started to write. That was 1932, when Bradbury was 12 years old, and he said that he wrote every single day of his life from then on. His books include The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Farewell Summer (2006).

Ray Bradbury, who said: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

And: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

And: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”

The Birth of Mass Destruction

Monday, August 6th, 2018

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the first atom bomb was successfully detonated at White Sands Proving Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The assembled scientists wore welder’s goggles and shared suntan lotion. Enrico Fermi took bets on whether the atmosphere would ignite and destroy just the state of New Mexico, or the entire planet. The explosion lit up the sky. The desert sand, largely made of silica, melted and turned to a light green, radioactive glass. Ken Bainbridge, the Harvard physicist in charge of the whole enterprise, known as the Manhattan Project, turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, “We are all sons of bitches now.” On August 6th and August 9th, the United States bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the only time nuclear weapons have been used in the history of warfare. Bainbridge dedicated his life to the eradication of nuclear weaponry.

 

Nikola Tesla/Scientist /Engineer

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 10 is the birthday of inventor Nikola Tesla , born in Smiljan, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia) (1856). He picked up an interest in inventing from his mother, who used to come up with new and helpful household appliances in her spare time.

He patented the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis for alternating-current machinery, and he also invented the Tesla induction coil, an essential component in radio technology. He sailed to America in 1884, bringing with him four cents, plans for a flying machine, and a few poems he’d written. He got a job with Thomas Edison, but the two had incompatible styles and soon parted ways. Tesla then sold his patent for alternating-current dynamos to Edison’s rival, George Westinghouse. Edison waged a media campaign against Westinghouse, Tesla, and alternating current, but to no avail: the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to provide lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where Tesla demonstrated how safe alternating current was. He would hook himself up to an electric lamp and allow the current to pass through his body on its way to lighting the lamp.

Two years later, Tesla designed one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the country, at Niagara Falls; the plant was soon supplying power to the city of Buffalo, New York. In 1900, he imagined a worldwide wireless communication system that could also provide free electricity via an enormous tower. J.P. Morgan and other investors funded him at first, but then Edison — and Guglielmo Marconi — caught the investors’ eye with their own radio technology. Tesla was forced to scrap his project, literally as well as figuratively: his tower was dismantled and sold for scrap to pay Tesla’s debts. Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown, and eventually died, impoverished and alone, in 1943. His alternating current system is still the standard power system in use in the world today.

 


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