Archive for ‘Science’

March 17, 2012

Mapping the World

A year ago today, I posted a short entry on world maps. More specifically, it was about alternative world map projections. (A projection is the way in which the globe or any portion of it is represented on a flat surface.) Mostly, when people think of the map of the world, they have the Mercator projection in mind. It looks like this.

The Mercator projection was created by Gerardus Mercator, a 16th century Flemish cartographer. Its strength was that it was useful for European maritime navigators. Remember, this is the dawn of colonialism. In a good example of how science and politics can be married, Mercator provided the Europeans with a tool for navigation, and in turn, they disseminated his map all over the world and made it the dominant mode of representation of the globe. Which is one of the reasons I said that when the words ‘world map’ pop up, people think of the Mercator projection.

The strengths of the projection are also its weaknesses. From a cartography standpoint, it gets one too many things wrong: it places the equator too low (it’s not in the middle), it distorts the northern parts of the globe too much (giving a false sense of size to small northern countries), it is Eurocentric, and it places the northern hemisphere on top, encouraging thinking of the northern hemisphere as dominant. (I should say that these are the most common criticisms leveled at the map. There are probably more, and not everyone would accept all of them as valid. But that’s not the point here.)

The Gall-Peters projection fixes some of these problems. This, we are told, is more ‘accurate’.

Then there are other, more whacky projections that further fix some of the Mercator map problems. In the last entry I gave two of these. The Peirce projection, also known as the Quincuncial projection

and the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Map projection


(Bear with me here, I’m not just recycling old material.)

A week or so ago, a university professor named Gene Keyes, commented on my original entry. He offered a link to his own article of criticism of the Dymaxion map in favor of the Cahill-Keyes projection. You can read all his arguments in detail here and here. I have myself only skimmed through the linked articles and I think I got the gist of the criticism. Apparently, decades before Buckminster Fuller created his Dymaxion map, Bernard J.S. Cahill was solving the same problems and came up with his own solution to the projection problems of the Mercator map. His solution is remarkably similar to Fuller’s later solution, and according to Keyes, Cahill’s is better.

According to Mr. Keyes, there are seven ways in which the Dymaxion Maps is deficient. They are:
1) Asymmetry of layout

2) Irregularity of graticule

3) Bad distortion of Korea and vicinity; also Norway

4) Poor scalability: the larger a Dymaxion map, the worse it looks

5) Anti-metric measurements; triangle edges have unstated irrational metric length of 7,048.89 km

6) Poor to zero comparison with any equivalent globe

7) Poor synoptic globe-and-map learnability

The Cahill projection (which Mr. Keyes would later amend to make the Cahill-Keyes projection) suffers from none of these problems. (I should add that this is all according to Mr. Keyes; not that I necessarily have any problems with his criticisms.)

The Cahill 1909 projection.

The Cahill-Keyes 1975 projection.

Now, I am not a cartographer, nor even a geographer. I don’t know what some of the words in those seven criticisms mean, and the only understanding I have of the concepts is through a superficial reading of Keyes’ article. I am ignorant of the issue, to say the least.

But there is something else. (And this is what this entry is really about.) I have no problem with criticizing the Mercator map or indeed the Dymaxion map. They might be more or less accurate, relative to other maps, they might be more or less suitable depending on the need. However, the claim from Cahill and Keyes is stronger (and Fuller probably fits this ideological criterion as well). Says Keyes:
Map-design-seekers are often asked: for what purpose do you want to use it? The conventional wisdom is that you must go with many different projections. Cahill begged to differ, and I concur:
I want a single, general purpose, world map projection, with high fidelity to a globe, suitable at all scales from smallest to largest, good for one country or the whole planet. I want a world map and globe as a synoptic pair, comparable to each other at a glance, or in detail. I want geography learners at any age to be able to grasp the globe and world map as readily as do-re-mi.

One map, one purpose. This is where my amateurish admiration for various projections and Cahill and Keyes’ project diverge.

This, I dare say, is not possible. For one, it just doesn’t seem likely that humanity will give up on the Mercator map. Somehow, for some reason or another, we seem to be invested in it. It is a convention that has been around long enough that it just might stick with humanity, even through massive civilizational changes. There is a decent argument to be made that we are currently going through one such civilizational shift, like the Middle Ages giving way to the Renaissance, or the Persian empire giving way to the Greek civilization. And if the Mercator map survives the change, and is able to transfer itself into the new age, it might be around for a very long time. Not as the only projection, but as the dominant one, the one people have in their heads when the words ‘world map’ are uttered.

(And if your conception of the civilization shift is tied to the change from analog to digital, then the fact that Google uses Mercator’s map – a fact that Keyes himself points out – has to be a strong argument for the projection surviving the jump.)

Nor would this be unusual for the human race. Just think of our concept of the day, the seasons, the year. Why would the day be divided into two twelve unit parts? It is a convention the Babylonians came up with 3000 (?) years ago, and it’s still with us (in a slightly changed form). Why should there be four seasons, and why should they be in the order they are in? If the Indian model of seasons had become dominant, we would perhaps only have two: wet and dry. If you exclude crop growing, we city dwellers (and of late we have become the majority, didn’t you know) could easily divide the year into more than four seasons: heating season, rainy season, falling in love season (for all I care), cooling season, melancholy season, shopping and partying season (to give an outrageous example). Why should the year have twelve months, and why should they have the number of days they have? (And don’t get me started on leap years.) Why would the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year be called the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth (September comes from the Latin for seven, October from eighth) … ?

In fact, after seizing power, the French revolutionaries made up a new “rational” calendar, whereby the year had ten months. (The Russian revolutionaries were more modest in their attempts: they only switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.) Why ten? Because we live in a world that uses the decimal system. Something that Keyes himself mentions as a strength of the Cahill projection over the Fuller projection. But why should this be better? What if future generations abandon the decimal system? (Perhaps in favor of the binary?) (Needless to say, the revolutionary calendar did not take.) And why should a sphere have 360 degrees? Why not 400? (In fact, I heard from someone once that the Russians had cannons during WWII that used a 400 degree circle, making a right angle 100, not 90 degrees.)

While these measurements sound arbitrary and irrational, they are vestiges of a time when their use was actually the most effective way of solving a specific problem. They have far outlived their usefulness, and are now simply convention. (Some have survived, and others have not, e.g. Roman numbers.) The Mercator projection falls neatly into this category, and there is little reason to think that it will not be just another in a long line of examples of this human phenomenon.

And this might be fine. Is there really a problem with the idea of a minute having sixty seconds? Or does anyone in America feel angst about the idea that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Or do those using Celsius really have a problem with their system of measurement being tied to physical properties of water (and not oxygen for example, or lead)?

This is not to say that Mercator map doesn’t have its problems. As I mentioned before, it does. Its problems can be discussed and other projections used to solve them. But the idea of a “better” map replacing and completely suppressing the use of Mercator’s map, just seems unlikely to me.

There are further reasons why I don’t think the Cahill-Keyes projection could become “the one” map.

I can think of one aspect according to which the Mercator (and the Peters) projection might best (I have to be careful here) the Peirce, Fuller, and Cahill. And that’s time. For someone who has a sister six time zones away, and friends two, three, four time zones before and after him, the passage of time seems mapped better on a cylindrical projection rather than the Quincuncial one or an unfolded icosahedron.

Further, it needs to be said that all these projections are heavily biased towards landmasses. That makes sense given that we think of ourselves as land creatures. But what if we once again become a civilization of maritime navigators? And I don’t mean like in Mercator’s time. I mean like the Polynesian civilization which used stick charts as maps of ocean swells and currents. The charts also map islands, but more to show how they interrupt ocean swells rather than give any significant detail of the landmass.

And what of potential space travel? This might sound like science fiction, but I am not convinced that space travel now is that dissimilar from what sailing around the world was in 1480, the year Ferdinand Magellan was born. In a hundred years, the attempt to make “the one” projection of Earth might turn out to be the equivalent of trying to clearly divide arable land in England at the end of the 15th century – a parochial endeavor that will ultimately have no place in the larger map.

December 21, 2011

The Science Story

 – for Danilo, with (some) apologies

A while ago, a friend of mine posted the following to his Facebook notes.

Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media

Julie Suleski

The Ohio State University,

Motomu Ibaraki

The Ohio State University


Journal publication has long been relied on as the only required communication of results, tasking journalists with bringing news of scientific discoveries to the public. Output of science papers increased 15% between 1990 and 2001, with total output over 650,000. But, fewer than 0.013—0.34% of papers gained attention from mass media, with health/medicine papers taking the lion’s share of coverage. Fields outside of health/medicine had an appearance rate of only 0.001—0.005%. In light of findings that show scientific literacy declining despite growing public interest and scientific output, this study attempts to show that reliance on journal publication and subsequent coverage by the media as the sole form of communication en masse is failing to communicate science to the public.

Reading over this now, I find it slightly amusingly arrogant, but mostly innocuous, a rather bland statement. However, when first posted, something about this enraged me beyond all reason. In fact, this was my reaction. (I should warn you here, it gets quite explicit.)

Fuck them!!! The arrogant sons of bitches!
Who gives a fuck what they’re talking about? They think they’re so high and mighty playing with fancy toys that the rest of society pays for. And then when we chose to give our attention to other things they blame the mass media and scientific illiteracy. Well, fuck you very much, scientific community.
Repeat after me: if we’re not paying attention, it might, just might be BECAUSE YOUR FUCKING SCIENCE SUCKS.
Now sit down and shut the fuck up!

When my friend (probably completely baffled), asked if I was being serious, I decided to “elaborate.” And by elaborate, I mean continue my rant. (Again, explicit.)

yes, really. I am offended by the implication that because less than 1% of sci papers make it to the general public, it must be the fault of the general public, without a moment of thought that it might be the fault of the science/scientists. Hey look, if you like science (which I do) go and do science, but don’t act like you’re better than everybody and that everybody should be listening to you all the time.
I like the philosophy of Hegel and the poetry of William Blake, but do you see me whining and whinging because they’re not more popular (the self-indulgent bastards!), or dialectically determining why few people read philosophy?
Being unwilling to be self-critical (or even consider the possibility! of being self-critical) and then looking down your nose at others…that’ll get you bitchslapped by me in no time!

It was left at that. (No surprise that this killed the conversation.) Now, I am both embarrassed at my vulgar attack on my friend (after all, he did post this to his Facebook page), and proud of the content of my critique. By which I mean that I do in fact think that wrapped up in that short abstract are a few unsavory presuppositions, and the language used is a little more than patronizing. How else to understand the words “failing to communicate science to the public?” As if there were these two entities, the public on the one hand, and scientists on the other: the scientists are the sages of truth and the bearers of wisdom, and they come from on high to ‘communicate’ this truth and wisdom to ‘the public.’ Not only that, but they are slightly baffled as to why the public is not as interested in science as they are, as if to say “I like this thing, why don’t you?”

I think one of the more revealing aspects of this abstract is the idea of “quantitative analysis” of the problem. Quantitative analysis (I am sure) is a useful tool for scientists, but it seems to be one (at least these specific) scientists can’t put down. It is kind of like the case of the man who carrying a hammer, sees loose nails everywhere.

In any case, I think I’m still right. Scientists think that they are more important than they are, and they think that because it is important in their lives, it should be important in ours too. Sigh.


“Ok, but [my friend might have asked, had he unwisely chosen to engage with a ranting maniac with an ax to grind], do scientists not truly know more things than the general public (within their specific fields), do they not have something beautiful and wonderful and interesting to say to the community at large? Can science not convey the miracle that is this world, even if it is not the only such vehicle?”

Indeed. And in the spirit of constructive debate, and not hurling insults, I bring you an article by Christophe Galfard in the World Policy Institute Journal. He starts off by asking some questions about microbes, and their perception in popular culture. And then moves to his larger point. “Is it because they are too small to be visible and hence don’t appeal to the feeling of awe that grips people looking at the night sky? Is it because once it is known they belong to the realm of microbes they just become subjects of fear? Perhaps. But it’s more likely the real reason is simply that their story hasn’t yet been told in the right way—and I suspect this is true for most scientific research.”

I emphasized the words their story because I believe we humans are story-kind-of-things and not quantitative-analysis-kind-of-things, and hence for something to be understood it needs to be in some kind of story. In fact the last section of Galfard’s article is called ‘Story Time’. And to get there, he takes a detour and tells the story of a scene in the film Neverland.

But what I like, as opposed to the aforementioned abstract, is not only the diagnosis that there is a gap between science experts and the general public. It is also the (self-)awareness of the fact that the cause of the gap is equally on the side of science and scientists as it is on the side of the public. Towards the end of the article, he writes the following. Through its findings, science yields answers none of us ever expect and may even help ensure the future survival of our species. But for this to happen, science needs to be alive and thrive in all the bizarre avenues opened to the human imagination […]. The dreams and prospects of science are unfathomable, and they should not be confined to the reach of a handful of experts, but be open to all. For this to happen, policymakers would be well advised to help scientists team up with, or become, story tellers who share their findings in lay terms with everyone.

For a mind blowing and beautifully written article, click here.

December 6, 2011

What do you see when you look through the pedascope?

This post was going to be about something else. I found out (via the Retronaut) about this fantastic contraption called the pedascope or shoe-fitting fluoroscope. It struck me as a good example of a our contemporary overreliance on what we think of as science.

Ok, one thing at a time. The pedascope was used from the 1920s until sometime in the 1960s, and was basically an X-ray machine that looked at your feet and issued shoe-fitting data. It strikes me that, more than a fad, there is an ideology behind this thinking. Since science has been terrifically successful in explaining, reinventing, reinterpreting our world from about the sixteenth century onwards, it has gradually pushed aside other criteria and ways of looking at the world in the popular imagination. If you ever want to win an argument at a dinner table, just claim that a study has been done proving whatever it is you claim. (Of course there probably has been a study proving that, just as there has been a study proving the opposite.) If ever you need to sell a product, just say that it was developed scientifically, or in a lab, or that scientists were consulted. This lends credibility.

If this were, however, just a case of human folly, things would be bad but forgivable. But the pedascope shows how this fad, while seemingly silly, is really quite dangerous. Overexposure to X-rays can, as we now know, lead to cancer. The pedascope is, in a sense, a mini version of the problem of eugenics. People thought (smart people!) that now that we have these scientific methods about what people and bodies should be like, we might as well use them and create a better human, or as the case may be, shoe.

And while I think this is a valid way of looking at the phenomenon of the pedascope, this post is about a different aspect of this device. It is about what Thomas Hayden over at The Last Word on Nothing lovingly calls crap technology. While hipsterishly retro in tone, the article did get me thinking about how quickly technology goes from cutting edge to crap. And it’s not just that better stuff replaces older stuff, the older stuff is also different. Vinyl records had the word ‘record’ in them, as in a record of an event, something that was lost on later music carriers. Making a mixed tape turned out to be quite different from making a mixed CD. iPods made music stores obsolete, we get our music off the internet. And mp3 music has to come with a video, because multimedia is here to stay.

Conversely, though, this means that if we were to look backwards, at technology that has long ago passed into the realm of ‘crap’, we would also catch glimpses of ways of living different than our own. Enter Maurice Collins, from this BBC article from back in 2006 (when Youtube was only a couple of years old and Facebook was still only for American colleges, lest we forget a world without those existed once upon a time). As an amateur collector, Collins collected enough gadgets from the end of the 19th and early 20th century to create three separate exhibits. From self-pouring tea pots to an automatic tennis ball cleaner, the man has over a thousand separate items. Self-pouring tea pots! Wait a minute, what does that mean? Why would people have self-pouring tea pots? Or, another piece from the collection, a mustache preserver. If we no longer have these, does that mean that men are simply not growing their mustaches anymore? Or that they care less about them being covered in beer? Are there men today who cover their mustaches the way Hercule Poirrot does in the 1974 movie incarnation of Agatha Cristie’s Murder on the Orient Express?

[I wish I had a screen shot of this. But if you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean.]

And what about the pedascope? Do our feet no longer hurt? Have we no need for better shoes? Is there no more a right and wrong way of wearing footwear? Perhaps sneakers carry some of this in them when they are advertized as worn by this athlete or that. It seems that our world finds it far more important what shoe allows you to jump high (to make the basket), rather than…well, I don’t know…

July 30, 2011

Tidings of Pica

In 1581, a criminal set for execution by the name Wendel Thumblardt offered his captors a deal. In lieu of executing him, they could test the purported magical effects of terra sigillata from the Greek island of Lemnos. The source of the belief was the ancient Roman medical researcher, Galen, who claimed that the red clay from Lemnos had medicinal qualities. The authorities in the 16th century agreed to Thumblardt’s offer. They gave him a poison along with the terra sigillata, and when he survived, they freed him.

I read this in a fascinating article by Daniel Mason in Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled Balanced Diets. Mason was in medical school when he wrote a novel, The Piano Tuner, and when the novel became a bestseller, he decided to stay a writer. His subject in the article is Pica, a medical disorder, defined on Wikipedia as “characterized by an appetite for substances largely non-nutritive (e.g., metal, clay, coal, sand, dirt, soil, feces, chalk, pens and pencils, paper, batteries, spoons, toothbrushes, soap, mucus, ash, gum, lip balm, tacks and other office supplies, etc.).” More specifically, geophagic pica, or the practice of eating earth. Here, in five acts, is a very brief modern history of pica.


Prior to the 19th century, pica, like hysteria, was considered a woman’s disease, and associated with chlorosis (the green sickness). Mason quotes Ambroise Paré, “physician to four French kings: ‘And when they are mature and ready for marriage, if menstruation begins but marriage is too long delayed, we find always that they are tormented grievously by a swooning of the heart and suffocation of the womb, particularly if they fall in love; their genitals feel warm, which arouses their desires and titillates and stimulates them, causing them to expel their own seed themselves. The seed, if it remains in the spermatic vessels or in the womb, rots and turns to poison…causing putrid vapors to rise to the higher parts and to pass into the blood…They feel pensive and sad and lose all appetite, their depraved appetite being called pica…They seem more dead than alive and often die dropsical and languishing, or mad.’” Cure for pica, thus, was – marriage.


In 1800, Alexander von Humboldt reported on a tribe in South America he had encountered near the Orinoco river. Two or three months of the year, when fishing was difficult, the Otomacs ate huge quantities of earth. What shocked the European educated world was not just that seemingly healthy people ate dirt, but that it was eaten by men. Not to worry, the open-minded scientists of Europe amended their views of pica. The disease afflicted, they said now, women and savages. For this there was abundant evidence. European slaveowners in the Caribbean had plenty of accounts of their slaves, who came from West Africa, craving charcoal, clay, chalk, mud, sand, rotten wood, shells, cloth, etc.


The problem with this view of pica, fascinating as it was, lay in the overabundance of evidence. For in seeking to explain it, scientists started finding pica everywhere. By 1849, Humboldt himself had to add to the earth eating peoples list Swedes, Finns, and even northern Germans during the Thirty Years War. It wasn’t just women and savages. Then in 1851, Otto Funke discovered hemoglobin as the carrier of iron in the blood, opening up research of anemia. Even prior to this scientist knew that pica could be cured with a hearty meal of red meat and vegetables, but now they understood why it occurred in the first place: lack of nutritional food caused low iron in the blood, causing a craving for the kinds of minerals that could regulate the problem. To quote Mason, “…there is an inherent beauty in this image of auto-regulation, this instinctual understanding of the mineral commerce that moves so invisibly through our blood.” Neat, huh?


Except that it’s a little more complicated. People with pica did not really crave foods high in iron, nor did they crave earth in general. “The Otomacs had not considered all clays “equally agreeable,” nor the “Negroes of Guinea” who sought vainly for caouac in Martinique. Across the world, the craved earths are mostly light-colored, crunchy when dry, aromatic when wet, easy to dissolve.” Nor could its prevalence be explained. Mason quotes Berthold Laufer, an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century. “Laufer left little doubt that earth eating had “nothing to do with climate, race, creed, culture areas, or a higher or lesser degree of culture.” Indeed, to read Laufer is to watch a war of attrition remove all notions of Otherness from our understanding of pica.” Pica, then, is not of the other, perhaps not even a disorder.


Even Humboldt recorded cases of animals consuming earth. “Over fifty species of primates practice pica,” writes Mason. So he, along with contemporary scientists, offers an evolutionary explanation for pica (after all, we live in the age of the evolutionary explanation). Eating earth is a way to domesticate food, so to speak. Eating clay cuts out the bitterness of certain foods, claimed Laufer, and bitterness is often found in foods that are in some way poisonous. They clay neutralizes the poison, which is what happened in the case of Wendel Thumblardt in 1581.

And that’s the best we got. Pica is a vestige of an evolutionary response to poisonous food. What I love about this article is how the attempts at explaining the disorder say more about the scientists and their prejudices, or the paradigms of their age (and our own!) than they do about the disease. And what I love about pica is that it lies at the cross of biology and culture, and the mind and body. Pica may appear in nature and may be an evolutionary response, but how cultures deal with this varies based on particular conditions of climate, flora, fauna, etc. And although it has something to do with iron deficiency, how and why that deficiency is manifested in the mind that craves not just specific kinds of clay, but chalk, metal, wood, ice – remains a mystery.

Oh, I almost forgot. The word pica originates from the Latin word for magpie, because it was considered that the bird would eat anything. So here’s a picture of a magpie.

July 27, 2011

The Hard Stuff that Remains

I think shows like Bones and CSI made forensic science more popular with the general public. (Since I never watch Bones, I did not know until two days ago that Stephen Fry guest stars in some of the episodes, which means that I totally have to watch those now!) Of course, being TV shows, they made it more popular at a certain cost, namely, accurate portrayal.

I’m guessing that actual science of reading human bones is both more pedestrian and more exciting. On the one hand, 99% of the time, there is no crime to be solved, so discoveries are less dramatic. On the other, the discoveries made, however slight and undramatic, are actually really new knowledge: not just use of existing knowledge to put a detective puzzle together, but actually stuff that nobody knew until that moment.

What made me think of this was a biological anthropologist, Kristina Killgrove who blogs at Powered by Osteons. For example, she reports on three Italian bio-anthropologists (archeologists? bone scientists, in any case), Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti who dug up and examined the bones of one Carlo Maria Broschi, also known as Farinelli. It appears that this is “the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch.”

(Farinelli’s remains are circled.)

It’s almost banal to hear what they had to say about him: he was 6’3” and had good oral hygiene. The really interesting thing, though is that his cranial bone was quite thick, which is almost exclusively found in postmenopausal women. It appears that his castration caused a hormonal imbalance, which over time caused the thickening of the bone. See, not very dramatic news, that: eighteenth century castrato had a hormonal imbalance. But it is interesting in a (very) geeky way, and it will surely get people thinking about connections between hormones, bones, sex, age…

Interestingly, Killgrove is not crazy about digging up famous people’s remains. She reports on certain scientists wanting to dig up Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the woman thought to be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or William Shakespeare. Most recently on her blog, she discusses why it’s not a good idea to dig up Cervantes. Not only can it not be confirmed with 100% accuracy that any bones found are Cervantes’, but the things they want to find out, can’t be deduced from the remains. Facial reconstruction (to see what he actually looked like) and whether cirrhosis was actually the cause of death.

As much as I too would want to know more about Cervantes, I have to side with Killgrove. Would we enjoy Don Quixote, the Mona Lisa, or Macbeth if we knew what these people looked like? What would this knowledge really do for us? It turns out, methinks, that attempts to dig up these three are much like Bones and CSI. Sensational stuff. Looks great in the newspapers, but hardly the stuff science is really made of.

July 17, 2011

Our Pneumatic Past and (fingers crossed) Future

Over at Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette wrote an article that talks about two things I love: urban structure and bits of forgotten history. Her article goes into the history and physics of vacuum and air pressure, starting with the Arab philosopher Al-Farabi in the 9th century, but I begin my story in the mid 19th century.

“In the mid-1850s, there were several rudimentary “atmospheric railways” — in Ireland, London, and Paris — and while the London Pneumatic Despatch system was intended to transport parcels, it was large enough to handle people. In fact, the Duke of Buckingham and several members of the company’s board of directors were transported through the pneumatic system on October 10, 1865, to mark the opening of a new station.”

Over in New York, traffic had become a nightmare by 1860. So some guy (there’s always a guy) came up with a solution. Alfred Ely Beach, who had previously acquired a little magazine that had only been started up ten months prior, called The Scientific American, decided to move traffic underground. He exhibited his prototype of an above-ground pneumatic train in 1867.
Being the fickle and conservative bunch that they are, New Yorkers rejected his proposed underground transportation. A combination of powerful store owners along Broadway (where Beach wanted to construct the railway), who did not want foot traffic diverted from their store fronts, and the general public not wanting its habits disrupted had his project…ehem…derailed.

Undeterred, Beach got permission from the state to build a tunnel for small pneumatic tubes under Broadway. Instead, he used the opportunity to show off his grander idea. “In February 1870, Beach unveiled his masterpiece, and it was an immediate novelty attraction for the public, especially given the luxury of the station: it boasted a grand piano, chandeliers, and a fully operational fountain stocked with goldfish.”
The opening of the station was popular with New Yorkers, but he needed more permits to construct a line up to Central Park. This made him bump up again against powerful interests in the government, and Beach was unable to do anything in the next few years.

By 1873, two things happened. There was the economic depression, also known as the Panic of 1873. And starting in 1870, other investors, working on the west side of Manhattan, namely on Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street, constructed a steam engine, elevated transportation system. (Once abandoned, it was on these elevated, West side tracks that the High Line was built.)


Alfred Ely Beach died in 1896, his dream unaccomplished. It would take electricity to bring about the explosion of the NYC subway system. And even then, there were just as many elevated trains as there were underground. In Manhattan these lines, like the Third Avenue, Eighth Avenue, and Broadway El were scrapped as late as the 1970s, but elevated trains still operate throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

As for the idea of pneumatic propelled transportation, Jennifer Ouellette fills us in. “The US government considered the possibility in the 1960s of running a vactrain (combining pneumatic tubes with maglev technology) between Philadelphia and New York City, but the project was deemed prohibitively expensive, and was scrapped. […] An engineer with Lockheed named L.K. Edwards proposed a Bay Area Gravity-Vacuum Transit system for California in 1967, designed to run in tandem with San Francisco’s BART system, then under construction. It, too, was never built. Nor was the system of underground Very High Speed Transportation conceived by Robert M. Salter of RAND in the 1970s to run along what we now call the Northeast Corridor.” However, she adds, Beach’s “vision is still influencing engineers in the 21st century, most notably researchers in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Apparently, traveling through networks of these vacuum tubes enables supersonic speeds without the drawback of sonic booms that plague supersonic jets, making the trip from London to New York in less than an hour.”
Surely, this is the way forward!

Ouellette, who also has a blog here, was a guest on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Hilarity ensues.

July 12, 2011

Neptune Turns One

Today is the first birthday of the planet Neptune.

“Discovered on September 23, 1846, Neptune was the first planet found by mathematical prediction rather than by empirical observation. Unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus led Alexis Bouvard to deduce that its orbit was subject to gravitational perturbation by an unknown planet. Neptune was subsequently observed by Johann Galle within a degree of the position predicted by Urbain Le Verrier…” (from Wikipedia)

It completes an orbit around the Sun (one Neptune year) in 164.79 Earth years. “On July 11, 2011, Neptune completed its first full barycentric orbit since its discovery in 1846, although it did not appear at its exact discovery position in our sky because the Earth was in a different location in its 365.25-day orbit. Because of the motion of the Sun in relation to the barycentre of the Solar System, on 11 July Neptune was also not at its exact discovery position in relation to the Sun; if the more common heliocentric coordinate system is used, the discovery longitude was reached on July 12, 2011.” (again from Wiki)

Happy Birthday, baby blue!

May 19, 2011

Numbers and Links

I forget what I was looking up, but I recently found out about the Erdős number. Paul Erdős was in himself a fascinating figure: a mathematician who was prolific as he was eccentric. He never had a fixed residence and would travel from one colleague’s home to another, write a paper (or several) with them and then move on. Because of his enormous output and the collaborative aspect of his work, there is a large group of mathematicians and scientists who have worked with him. Hence the origin of the Erdős number.

Those who collaborated directly with Erdős are assigned the number 1. If one collaborated with someone who directly collaborated with Erdős, they get the number 2. The Erdős number counts how many steps away one is from collaboration with Paul Erdős.

The Kevin Bacon number follows the same principle, only for show biz. The Erdős number is older, but due to its geekiness is less well known.
Given that this blog is where high geekiness meets low geekiness, we are mostly concerned with a synthesis of these two. Namely, the Bacon-Erdős number.

Danica McKellar:

         – coauthored a science paper with professor as undergraduate; graduated summa cum laude from UCLA; went on to write three math books for kids of various ages (one of which was a New York Times bestseller); Erdős number is 4.

– started as a child star on the Wonder Years; still works in movies and TV, including eight episodes of West Wing; Bacon number is 2.
Erdős-Bacon number is 6.

Daniel Kleitman:
         – physicist and mathematician; got his PhD in physics, then met Erdős who asked him “Why are you only a physicist?”; coauthored at least six papers with Erdős; teaches applied mathematics at MIT. Erdős number is 1.

– math advisor and extra in Good Will Hunting; Bacon number is 2.
Erdős-Bacon number (lowest such) is 3.


More people with Erdős-Bacon numbers here. (Thanks to Cait for this.)

May 3, 2011

a word on Gustav Eisen

There is no Wikipedia entry for Gustav Eisen. There really ought to be.

When he came to California from Sweden in 1873 he improved grape cultivation (had his first vintage in 1875), introduced the Smyrna fig and the avocado. In the 1880s he started campaigning to save the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevadas, and his work contributed to the establishment of Sequoia National Park, where there is now a Mt. Eisen peak.

Throughout the 1890s he served in various positions at the California Academy of Sciences working on mosquitos and worms(he had previously corresponded with Charles Darwin whose last book is about worms). There is a genus of worms, like Eisenia fetida and Eisenia andrei, named after him.

He also wrote books about the Holy Grail, the portraits of George Washington, on the subject of glass, and apparently was interested in Mayan culture, beads and textiles. Sounds like someone I’d love to have a conversation with.

When he died in 1940, his ashes were buried on Mt. Eisen.

(link to a short bio that opens as pdf)

April 13, 2011

In a Word…

An interview with the authors of a new book called Sacred Trash brought my attention to the Cairo Geniza.
The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 280,000 documents found in the genizah, or hiding place, of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in what is now Cairo. Because the documents were written in Hebrew, which is considered God’s writing, they could not be destroyed. They were simply put away, although some were buried in the Jewish cemetery. The documents date back to 870 AD. The last additions to the genizah were made in the 1880s, right before Western scholars got their hands on the treasure and blew the whole thing wide open.

From the articles I’ve read and the interview I heard, it seems that the story of the Cairo Geniza is always told through the focal point of the moment in 1896. That is when Solomon Schechter, a Romanian born Jewish scholar (who would later become one of the founding figures of Conservative Judaism in America) learned about the genizah, the hiding place, and brought it to the attention of the West. The Geniza, meaning the collection of documents, is now broken up among several European and American libraries, with the majority of it in Cambridge, where Schechter worked.

The documents contain everything from medieval Jewish poetry, tracts written by famous scholars, letters to the elders of the community, to legal documents and private letters. They were all written in Hebrew script, but most are in Aramaic. And since the documents cover trade with other communities, there are documents from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Sicily, and there is mention of Morocco, Rouen in France, Kiev in Ukraine and India.

Not only have scholars found the writings of Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, both rabbis and philosophers, and the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, but the Geniza mentiones 35,000 individuals, 200 prominent families, 450 professions.

…in a word, an entire civilization.