Einstein and the Paper Clip
According to mathematician and Einstein collaborator Ernst Straus, this is the anecdote that Albert most thought captured his essence:
We [Einstein and Ernst Straus] had finished the preparation of a paper and were looking for a paper clip. After opening a lot of drawers we finally found one which turned out to be too badly bent for use. So we were looking for a tool to straighten it. Opening a lot more drawers we came upon a whole box of unused paper clips. Einstein immediately started to shape one of them into a tool to straighten the bent one. When asked what he was doing, he said, ‘Once I am set on a goal, it becomes difficult to deflect me.’
via Futility Closet
Meet Ham, the first primate in space! He took off on a suborbital space flight on January 31, 1961, preceding the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin into space by two and a half months.
His name stands for Holloman Aerospace Medical center, the Air Force base where he completed his training and mission prep. Of course, he was far from the only animal trained for the space program on either side of the Iron Curtain. NASA has written up an extensive history of animal astronauts (not all of it good, I’m afraid).
Check out this super-interesting, and slightly uncomfortable, 1961 newsreel film about Ham: Trailblazer in Space.
Ham lived, presumably happily (but maybe not), until 1983, when he died at the National Zoo and North Carolina Zoo. His remains were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame to commemorate his service to manned space flight. Way to go, little man.
Even Enrico Makes Mistakes…
In my "How The Elements Got Their Names" video, I dropped this little rhyme about element 93 (Neptunium), Enrico Fermi, and how his Nobel(ium) helped him get to Americ(ium):
There’s a crazy story behind 93, it was named for Italy by Enrico Fermi.
But his science was wrong, and when his Nobel came along, he snuck off to the States to be free.
Confused? Well, the full story behind element 93 is a fascinating tale of bad PR, fascism, and laboratory screw-ups.
Uranium, element number 92, is the largest element (in terms of number of protons) found in nature. Every element above 92, a club known as the transuranium elements, is unstable, decaying into smaller elements and subatomic particles. In the mid-1930’s, element-hungry scientists knew that the transuraniums theoretically could exist, but didn’t have a way to make them.
Enrico Fermi, then working in Rome, figured that pummeling uranium atoms with slow-moving neutrons might birth elements 93+ thanks to a process called β- decay, where the new neutron enters the nucleus, converts into a proton, releasing an electron and antineutrino in return. The result? Uranium+1 or Uranium+2, or elements 93 and 94… theoretically, at least.
In 1934, Fermi shot some neutrons at some uranium, saw the beta decay he was looking for, and figured he had done it! Elements 93 and 94, in the proverbial bag. Time to pack his bags for Stockholm, right?
Like a cold neutrino pudding, the plot thickened. At the time of Fermi’s experiment, Italy was under the control of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. Sensing a good PR opportunity for “Italian science” and “fascist cultural supremacy”, Mussolini's government widely publicized the finding, much to Fermi’s chagrin, who wanted to, you know, check his work and stuff.
The first name proposed for Fermi’s #93 was Mussolinium (can you imagine if that had been approved?!) but since the element was short-lived, it was thought that Il Duce would take offense to its frailty. Instead they proposed that the new names for 93 and 94 honor ancient and poetic names for Italy: Ausonium and Hesperium.
In 1938, as these names were being considered, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery. Scientific national pride swelled in pre-WWII fascist Italy. But there was just one catch. Enrico Fermi was wrong.
Soon after his Nobel, it was shown that Fermi instead split uranium by nailing it with neutrons, which produced beta decay and energy, but resulted in lighter elements, not heavier. So did Fermi get credit for discovering fission? Nope. That honor goes to Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, who split uranium (on purpose) in 1938.
So Fermi not only lost out on discovering what would be named neptunium (thanks to Edwin Macmillan and Philp Abelson’s work in 1940), but he also missed out on discovering fission, because he didn’t know that he did it.
After his 1938 Nobel Prize ceremony (for the faux-discovery), fearing for his family’s safety in Mussolini’s Italy, Fermi emigrated directly from Stockholm to the United States, where he worked on the Manhattan Project, using his prize money to set up a new life in a new home.
Fermi had many scientific accomplishments and many successes, but the story of elements 93 and 94 show that there’s a whole lot of history, humanity, and drama behind those little boxes on the periodic table.
See that woman? That is not Marie Curie.
I mean, it is Marie Curie, but only in a sense.
If you type “Marie Curie” into Google image search, you’ll likely see this colorized photo pop up several times in the results. You might even find the original black and white. Go ahead. Try it. You’ll see this picture on postage stamps, in meme photos, and even in the form of a Marie Curie bobblehead doll (one of which I own), all purported to be the one, true Marie Curie.
But it’s not her. I know this because I met this Marie Curie, just last week.
Her name is Susan Marie Frontczak. She performs as Maria Sklodowska in a living history stage show called Manya that tours around the world, bringing Madame Curie’s science and soul to life.
The photo shows Susan striking a thoughtful, Curiesque stance, dressed in her period-appropriate Curie garb (It was Marie who famously said “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”) The photo was posted to the web a few years ago, and thanks to that game of internet telephone known as “attribution-free viral image sharing” she has, in a very real way, become Marie Curie. At least in the eyes of Togo.
And Mali, and Zambia, and Guinea-Bissau, and the Republic of Guinea. All have released stamps using Susan’s photo as “Marie Curie”, often alongside real photos of Marie Curie, who Susan looks remarkably like, but not so close that one would be confused when looking at their pictures literally side by side.
Susan has also been immortalized in science’s Last Supper (below), sandwiched between Galileo and J. Robert Oppenheimer, playing the part of the apostle James (son of Alphaeus, not the Zebedee one). It occurs to me that I have no idea which Redditor or other meme-oriented internet user originally made this Last Supper image. The irony does not escape me.
Susan’s trademark pose, with extended right arm holding aloft a mysterious blue liquid we can assume represents the mere tenth of a gram of radium chloride Curie painstakingly extracted from one ton of pitchblende, complete with the thousand-yard stare of Nobelian gravitas, is carved daily by Chinese factory workers into top-heavy, spring-necked plastic figurines. Ah, to be immortalized in bobblehead form, on someone else’s bobblehead!
Did I mention no one has paid Susan for any of this?
This is an entertaining, but all-too-typical tale of the Modern Internet™. Susan doesn’t make a bunch of money from her show. I wonder how much she’s missed out on with people using her likeness without permission? I wonder how many other artists we could put in Marie’s … I mean Susan’s place, who lose out daily as their work is posted online without links or permission, spreading out of control like a radium-induced cancer?
Susan would like to adapt Manya into a film some day, to help spread Marie Curie’s legacy worldwide to new audiences. Maybe Togo, Mali, Zambia, and the various Guineas could see it in their pilfering philatelist hearts to send her a small donation? And maybe we can all be a bit more careful in the future, and treat these wonderfully creative science artists a bit nicer, and show them off, instead of showing off ourselves?
I mean, what would Marie Curie do? I asked her, last week. She said she’d like to be recognized.
Stamp and portrait images courtesy of Susan Marie Frontczak
Time in Tens
Today I learned: During the 18th and 19th centuries there were passionate efforts to institute decimal time, a day divided into 10 hours, each consisting of 100 minutes, which would be further divided into 100 decimal seconds.
Just like gunpowder, paper money, and countless other things, decimal time was developed long ago in China, as far back as 2,000 years ago, only to be eliminated in the 1600’s by those pesky European Jesuit missionaries and the oh-so-logical dozenal (12-based) time system that we all know and love.
The French Revolution saw the most recent push for decimal time, with democratic reformers insisting on a base-10 calendar, and even manufacturing base-10/base-12 combo clocks like the one above (via Wikipedia). As recently as 1893, smart guy extraordinaire Henry Poincaré was pushing for a standard decimal time. But since so much of the world, from maritime navigation to daily appointment-keeping, had been built on the time that we still use today (and since making everyone buy a new clock is just mean), decimal time never caught on.
Nice to know that the U.S. and its failure to adopt the metric system isn’t the only decimal failure in modern history!
The top image was drawn on the back of the On The Origin Of The Species manuscript, the second image is of the Darwin family home:
with cozy details like a tea kettle on the boil and a fluffy orange cat in the attic window… Fascinatingly, this image might be detailed enough that it actually depicts Darwin’s famous sandwalk, his “thinking path” that led to the family greenhouse (which is, perhaps, the structure visible at the end of the path). The area was later made into a playground for the Darwin children.
The third image is of Emma Darwin’s diary, which a toddler has blacked out.
It’s all a great reminder that even legendary scientists had family lives, and that when we think about history, it’s important to remember that famous figures weren’t working in isolation. They were surrounded by far less famous friends, family members, acquaintances, and enemies. And sometimes, when we get lucky, we see some of their artifacts from the past too.
Filed under: parenting
Kids will be kids, even if they’re Darwin’s kids!
I suppose if you’re gonna have somebody explain something, best to go right to the source.
Carl Sagan writes about the intersection of astronomy and poetry in his high school paper, because Sagans do as Sagans do.
In case you missed it, here’s my thoughts on Carl’s legacy in video form: