Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.
In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.
The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.
The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.
In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.
This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Physics
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We spent today at Planetfest 2012, listening to more than a dozen speakers, each with some connection to and great enthusiasm for space exploration in general and the current mission to Mars in particular. As we await tomorrow night’s landing of the Mars rover Curiosity on the Martian surface, we share with you the reasons we heard today for bothering with such an endeavor.
LORI GARVER, NASA Deputy Administrator:
“NASA is a place that carries our dreams and aspirations.”
“We’re the one species that does it [explores] for reasons other than our own survival. […] I believe it is one of our most intrinsically human characteristics.”
Space exploration “helps lift the standard of living for all.”
DAVID BRIN, Science Fiction Author:
“It’s a manifestation of desire when a free people say I want to allocate enough money and patience” to explore space. “Are we a civilization that desires to do this kind of thing? […] We have to become a people again who have a mission.”
SCOTT MAXWELL, Mars Rover Driver:
“The most exciting words are I don’t know.”
“This is the reason we are so lucky to live in this time and place. […] We can have these kinds of adventures.”
“The future has a lovely habit of surprising us.”
There exists “no substitute for going down to the surface.”
JIM BELL, President of The Planetary Society and Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University:
“It’s not easy. […] These [space exploration missions] are some of the hardest things our species does.”
“These layered rocks [on Mars] are telling us a story. […] We’re going to go read those pages of the book.”
JIM GREEN, NASA Director of the Planetary Science Division:
“It has changed everything about our perspective of us in the solar system.”
“I would love to see humans on Mars, boots on Mars. […] Mars is the ultimate destination. […] I’d like to think it will happen in my lifetime.”
RAY ARVIDSON, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, Washington University:
“Understanding of Mars will undoubtedly come back [to Earth].”
BILL NYE, The Science Guy and CEO of The Planetary Society:
“The joy of discovery—that, my friends, is the essence of this business.”
“We’re doing it for much less than a fancy cup of coffee per tax payer.”
TO SUM UP, IN BILL NYE’S WORDS:
“This weekend is going to change the world.”
That’s why we’re heading back to Pasadena tomorrow for more discussions and to watch the streaming coverage of the landing with The Planetary Society. See our previous post “Mars Rover! Mars Rover! Send Curiosity Right Over!” for information on how you can view Mars in the night sky and watch the landing on your computer.
Happy Birthday, Skylab May 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Chemistry, Physics
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On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched Skylab from Kennedy Space Center. As with other projects, like the Hubble Telescope, not everything was right with the first American space station at the beginning. But in-space repairs made real science in space—and living there—a reality for our generation.
Apollo astronauts like Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent time on Skylab, as did space shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. Fellow Illinoisan Joseph Kerwin became the first physician to be invited to train to go to space and spent 28 days in space. The 84 days of Skylab’s last mission now pales in comparison with stints on the International Space Station, and the percentage of days that Skylab was inhabited makes it looked little used. But at the time, this space station was pretty amazing and certainly paved the way for future low-Earth orbit projects.
What we remember most about Skylab is the anticipation of reentry in the summer of 1979. The space shuttle hadn’t been completed in time to save Skylab, to push it higher in orbit and extend its life for a few more years. Bets on the date of its demise were wagered, t-shirts were printed up, and rewards for pieces of the space station were offered by news organizations. We hoped its demise would come on the weekend and on our side of the globe, though all along NASA was shooting for the pieces to fall in the largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean, far from land and people who could be hit by burning bits of debris. On July 11, a Wednesday, Skylab fell to Earth, and we didn’t see it. NASA miscalculated the process and angles slightly, the spacecraft didn’t burn up fast enough, and some debris landed in Australia.
In many ways, as we look back on Skylab, it seems as if it, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, had been a television show we watched as kids, a bit of popular culture. The real science of it hadn’t made its way into our textbooks then. But it was real, and there’s proof at the National Air and Space Museum, where the second orbital workshop is on display. NASA had planned to send a second Skylab to space, so two complete space stations were manufactured. NASA doesn’t build spare spacecraft so that museum visitors can walk through them, imagining what it would be like to look down on the earth from 250 miles up. But that’s exactly what happened with Skylab, and it gave regular folks the rare opportunity to inhabit—to physically invest themselves in—the idea of living on a space station.
Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, Computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
Opportunity Knocks January 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Chemistry, Mars
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On January 25, 2004, a robotic rover called Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars, our closest neighbor planet. Opportunity’s life story is a good model for thinking about our own human goals. It took more than five months and more than 34 million miles to get there, but that day marked the beginning of the rover’s real work. The next 21-plus miles has been the exciting part of the journey for scientists. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to last 90 Martian days, which are just over 39 minutes longer than Earth days.
By its second day on Mars, Opportunity had a joint problem with a robotic arm that is supposed to be stowed when it moves. But the rover—and NASA—made do and eventually developed a way to move safely without stowing the arm. For months in 2005, Opportunity was stuck in the sand. Again, the rover—and NASA—patiently inched around and eventually started roving again.
All this time, Opportunity has been collecting soil samples, monitoring the climate, and sending back amazing photographs of the Martian landscape. The rover is basically a moving science mini-laboratory. It x-rays and performs microscopic imaging of rock and soil samples, then sends analyses of constituent elements back to Earth. Its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer examines rocks and soil to figure out how they were formed. Scientists are especially interested to know whether and when water may have existed on Mars. In December, NASA announced that Opportunity had examined what seemed to be gypsum deposited in veins by water.
As of this month, seven years after its landing, Opportunity sits on the north end of Cape York, which is on the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is still looking around and conducting measurements, including Doppler tracking. The robotic arm is still working; it positioned the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on January 12.
Opportunity’s twin, called Spirit, landed three weeks before Opportunity on January 4, 2004. Before the end of the month, Spirit faced a flash memory problem. NASA spent ten days reformatting, patching, and testing in order to fix the problem. Luckily, the fix worked and was applied to Opportunity as well. Even after Spirit got stuck in 2009, the rover continued to send back information. NASA’s final contact with Spirit was on March 10, 2010, more than six years after its landing. A little bit of failure goes a long way to success.
Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011. It is currently cruising (it’s in the cruise phase of the mission) and will arrive on Mars after 193 more days, in August. This rover is much bigger than its twin predecessors and will check out the Red Planet in ways that will help us plan a mission to put human beings on the surface of Mars. Of course, Curiosity will live up to its name by studying the planet’s geological evolution, radiation levels, and chemical makeup.
Few people are as enthusiastic about the Mars rovers as Ken Kremer. He does a lot of work processing the images that Mars rovers send back. Read his Lofty Ambitions guest post HERE. See his work at Universe Today HERE and HERE.
To read Anna’s very different take on the Mars rovers and how they can inspire a writing life, read her guest post “Curiouser and Curiouser” at Chandra Hoffman’s blog HERE.
As we celebrate today’s anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, consider the meaning of that word. John F. Kennedy once pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for the word crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger but the other meaning opportunity. We’re not sure we should learn Chinese from Kennedy, but the notion points to the relationship between failure and success about which we’ve written before here at Lofty Ambitions. What is the set of circumstances or conditions that will make it possible to accomplish something? How will we create our next opportunity, perhaps inch our way out of a metaphorical sand dune or take care of that all too real bum shoulder joint? Sometimes, it takes 34 million miles to get where you need to be, only to find out that the fun is in the next 21 miles of meandering. Is there an opportunity knocking—or knocking you over?
In the Footsteps (Part 11) January 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Chemistry, Einstein, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Physics, Radioactivity
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We spent yesterday in Pasadena—at CalTech and Vroman’s Bookstore—because that’s how we chose to spend one of Doug’s vacation days. We had been planning to visit the CalTech archives for a while, but we chose yesterday because our colleague Tom Zoellner was reading at Vroman’s from his new book A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in America. (His op-ed appears in today’s L.A. Times HERE, and we hope to have a guest post from Tom in the weeks to come.)
Tom’s reading was great, and he answered a lot of questions from the audience, creating a real discussion. Lest you think Tom Zoellner has nothing to do with our “In the Footsteps” series, his last book is Uranium, a well-written investigation of this radioactive element and our relationship with it over time. Zoellner recounts some of what we’ve covered in this series—the train station in Lamy, New Mexico, and Dorothy McKibben in Santa Fe—when he writes of the Manhattan Project, “An office on the plaza in Santa Fe was a discreet welcome center for the professors who stepped off the Super Chief streamliner, blinking in the bright sunshine at the foot of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.”
Before the reading, we spent the afternoon in the archives located in the subbasement of the Beckman Institute at CalTech. It’s a small operation with a few staff and one main research room. We had requested to see the papers of Richard Chase Tolman and Robert F. Bacher. Loma Kilkins wheeled out a cart of familiar storage boxes, and we started with the Tolman papers because there were just two. In fact, we didn’t get through all six boxes of the Bacher papers and will have to return for more research. After all, 39 linear feet (more than six times that of Tolman’s collection) of Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feyman’s papers still await.
What we like about archival research is that we never know exactly what we are going to find. A lot of the materials in these two collections were official documents, but even those reveal the signatures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman. In these collections, it’s also possible to start tracing connections to people with whom the public might be more familiar, such as Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Richard Feyman, or Linus Pauling. (All these men were Nobel Laureates, in fact, with Pauling awarded two prizes. CalTech alums, including our university’s economics professor Vernon Smith, have been awarded 17 Nobel Prizes, and CalTech’s non-alum faculty have been warded 14.)
Tolman, a physicist, was General Leslie Groves’s scientific advisor during the Manhattan Project. He had been a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center still working on the world’s complex problems. Some of Tolman’s papers reside in the CalTech archives because he joined the faculty there in 1922. Linus Pauling, who studied at Oregon State University (where Doug earned his PhD), shows up in the Tolman papers because he came to CalTech in 1927 and later declined an invitation to join the Manhattan Project.
There are also wonderfully personalized parts of letters that are otherwise largely about scientific notions or career moves: hello to a wife, a mention of a recent visit. Tolman seems to have sent his talk and article “A Survey of the Sciences” to almost everyone he knew, and many of them responded, all positively but often with a quibble over this or that statement. In the less formal comments, we can glean an individual voice, a relationship, and the idiom of the time.
And there are little surprises, mysteries, too. Who is Helen Evereth? And why did Richard Tolman send her flowers on several occasions? She mentions her advancing age, along with expressing socialist political stances. Was she a great aunt or a former teacher or, perhaps, a sweetheart before he met his wife? Is she the Helen Evereth that the U.S. Census lists as having been born in 1874 in Maine? Helen’s are the most personal correspondence in the folders, but it’s impossible to piece together from these documents the story of Helen Evereth and Richard Tolman.
Perhaps our favorite piece of paper was a response to Albert Einstein (another Nobel laureate), instigated but not written by Tolman. The translation reveals that Einstein had submitted an idea to solve a problem with flight dynamics. The response, to put it simply, tells Einstein that they’d already thought of his idea and it doesn’t work. It’s heartening somehow to see plainly that even Einstein came up with notions that didn’t pan out and that even he faced rejection.
When you read a book like Uranium, you get what feels like the whole story. The narrative is figured out, and you find pleasure in its arc and cohesiveness. When you thumb through archives, you get tidbits, some of which state the obvious and expected and some of which don’t seem to fit. You find bits and pieces that could fit together in any one of a variety of ways but that also stand on their own for what they are (and were).
On This Date: Lunar Eclipse & More! December 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Railroads, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we set our alarm for 5:30a.m. so that we could take a look at the total lunar eclipse. A total eclipse had occurred earlier this year, in June, but it wasn’t visible from North America.
The moon hung in our western sky, its face three-quarters in shadow. We watched the slow process, which takes several hours, for about ten minutes. Then set the alarm for 6:15a.m. to see how much it had changed. By then, the sun was rising over our backs, and the moon had sunk behind trees that line the street a couple of blocks away. Still, we could make out the reddish glow of the lunar orb.
If you remember your grade-school science lessons, you’ll recall that a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the Sun’s rays from striking the Moon. Lunar eclipses are beautiful in part because the alignment necessary happens to occur when the Moon is full. In fact, even before the eclipse, last night’s Moon was striking.
We didn’t brush up on our how-to-photograph-the-Moon instructions, but Universe Today has some amazing photos and a video HERE. MSNBC also has a great collection of photos HERE. A Seattle blogger also has amazing shots from around the globe HERE.
If you missed this weekend’s eclipse, mark your calendar for April 15, 2014.
If you’re looking for other events to commemorate today, it’s the anniversary of the awarding of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year.
Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the chemistry prize for his work on dilute solutions and how they behaved, mathematically speaking, like gasses. In his address, he espoused the role of imagination in science.
The prize in physiology or medicine that year went to Emil von Behring, who came up with the diphtheria vaccine and also a serum to prevent tetanus. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster in more than ten years, you could commemorate this anniversary with the CDC-recommended tetanus shot to prevent the potentially deadly bacterial infection of the nervous system. Of course, consult your doctor because contraindications exist too.
There’s some controversy as to whether von Behring should have shared the financial rewards for the diphtheria serum and the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich, who shared the prize in 1908 for work in immunity. A year later, Ehrlich developed a cure for syphilis, though even now, no vaccine is available.
Today is also the anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental flight across the United States and the first cross-country airmail, which began on September 17, 1911. Clearly, not a nonstop! In fact, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, great-grandson of Matthew Perry, stopped 70 times (not all planned), finally landing in Long Beach, California, on December 10. The last twenty miles from Pasadena had included two stops and a broken ankle. To celebrate and fully complete his transit, the pilot taxied his plane (the Vin Fizz, named to advertise a grape soda) into the Pacific Ocean. Only a few months later, on April 3, 1912, in a sad bit of irony, Rodgers, who had received about 90 minutes of flight instruction before his first solo in June 1911, perished when his exhibition flight over Long Beach ended in the ocean near where he had completed his transcontinental trek.
We end today’s post with an excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was born on this date in 1830. Though the poem isn’t about a lunar eclipse (the full poem is available at The Academy of American Poets), it does resonate with our viewing early this morning:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
Talking with an Astronaut October 5, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Chemistry, Music, Nobel Prize, Physics, Space Shuttle
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At 7pm TODAY at Chapman University, the astronaut who sent the first tweet from outer space joins the screening and discussion of An Article of Hope. Astronaut Michael Massimino, live via videoconference from Houston, will talk with the film’s producer, who is also our first Guest Blogger Christopher Cowen. The documentary is about Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, a payload specialist on the ill-fated Columbia mission. On that voyage, he carried a small Torah passed down from a survivor of a concentration camp.
There’s still time for you to help select the wake-up songs for STS-133. That’s the Space Shuttle launch we’ll watch in person next month. Click here to vote.
It’s Nobel Week!
Monday: Robert G. Edwards (for in vitro fertilization) in Physiology or Medicine
Tuesday: Andre Geim and Konstatin Novoselov (for graphene) in Physics
Thursday: Literature (Monday’s odds favored Swedish Tomas Tranströmer, but Americans Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates are supposedly in the running.)
Monday: Economic Sciences
New Shower Curtain September 17, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff.
Tags: Chemistry, Physics, Wright Brothers
Our new shower curtain featuring the Periodic Table arrived from ThinkGeek. It’s a little flimsier than we’d hoped, with no magnets at the bottom and little reinforcement around the holes for the curtain rings. But the design is great, and the colors really perk up the bathroom. We’ll get a liner to extend the life of this fancy shower curtain–and so that the full periodic table can be draped on the outside of the tub allowing us to study up on the measurement conversion listed at the bottom of the curtain.
If you’re interested in a really sturdy shower curtain (something that holds up in the washing machine) or one that doesn’t need rings, we recommend the hookless options from Arcs & Angles. We only wish they had more colorful designs (they used to).
On a more somber note, today marks the anniversary of the first powered airplane fatality. In 1908, Orville Wright crashed a Wright Flyer during a demonstration flight in Virginia for the military. Thomas Selfridge died in the accident at age 26. Orville Wright spent seven weeks in the hospital.
Currently, Southwest Airlines has the best record in U.S. passenger air travel, with more than 15 million flights since 1970 and no crash fatalities. American Airlines has had the most fatal events since 1970, with 13, but it’s also flown the most flights of any domestic carrier. The Colgan Air crash in 2009 is the most recent fatal crash in the United States (view an excerpt from the Frontline documentary here). But U.S. air travel is incredibly safe. If we don’t count the four doomed flights on September 11, 2001, fewer than one fatal crash per year has occurred in the last dozen years (for NTSB list, click here), even though almost 30,000 commercial airline flights take to the skies on any given day.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize
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German chemist Richard Willstätter was born on August 13, 1872. He studied plant’s pigment structures, including the structure of chlorophyll. For that work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915.
Italian microbiologist Salvador Luria was born on this date in 1912. He shared the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for work with bacteria and inheritance. That’s especially important in understanding antibiotic resistance today. Because we like to point out connections, we note that Enrico Fermi helped Luria secure a fellowship at Columbia University, and his first graduate student (at Indiana University) was James Watson, who went on to share a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Perhaps, there exists more than one kind of inheritance in science.
English chemist Frederick Sanger was born on August 13, 1918, and went on to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. His 1958 prize was for work on amino acid sequences in insulin, and his 1980 prize was for developing a method for DNA sequencing. Only three others have been awarded two Nobel Prizes: Marie Curie (see earlier post), Linus Pauling, and John Bardeen.
But if you think birth date is good predictor of your chance at a Nobel Prize, think again. University affiliation—either as an alum or faculty member—at Columbia University, University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Harvard University matters more. Each of those institutions “claims” more than 70 Nobel Laureates among its faculty and alums. Chapman University, our affiliation, has one Nobel Laureate on its faculty: economist Vernon L. Smith.
Today is also the date, in 1969, that Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins were released from quarantine for a ticker-tape parade in New York, then a state dinner in honor of their receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for taking that great step for humankind (especially for Americans, who were happy to have beat the Soviets to the Moon). Watch a rare Neil Armstrong public appearance below.
Finally, on August 13, 1910, Florence Nightingale died. In her memory, consider donating blood at your local Red Cross.