Category Archives: History

Has Science Been Fair to the Fair Sex?

I know Women’s History Month is almost over, but the points raised in this post are still very valid.

The film, “Hidden Figures” has been in the news quite a bit recently.  It is a dramatization of the real-life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who did heavy-duty mathematical calculations at NASA in the 1960s. Even though computers did exist in those days, they were the size of large refrigerators and had far less computing power than even the lowly Commodore VIC-20 (a nearly 40-year old personal computer).  Thus, humans were still needed to do the mathematical work that the early manned space missions required.

However, those women had several things going against them.  One was that they were women.  Another was that they were African-American.  On top of that, NASA facilities were mostly in the South.  In the case of Kennedy Space Center (though it wasn’t called that until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), it was due to considerations of orbital mechanics.  As for the other NASA centers, it was to placate influential politicians.  As a result, segregation was in full force at the time.  Johnson and her team worked in a separate office, had a separate lunch area, and were treated as second class people by most at NASA.  However, John Glenn judged them by their work and treated them well.  In fact, he demanded that Johnson personally handle the computations for his orbital flight.

This got me to look back at other women in the history of science.  It turns out that the snubs and treatment that Johnson and her team got were not new.

One famous example was Caroline Herschel.  Due to her growth being stunted in childhood by disease, she was quite short.  On top of that, her parents told her that she would amount to nothing.  However, she helped out her brother, William Herschel, the greatest observational astronomer of his era.  Eventually, she learned enough that she became an observer herself, discovering several deep sky objects as well as a few comets.  Despite her superb training, her contributions were largely forgotten.  Even among modern astronomers, she is little known.

Another case was Maria Mitchell.  She was born into a Quaker family and, since the Quakers believed in equal education, she received far better education than most women of that era.  Mitchell developed an interest in astronomy early in life and became one of America’s first professional astronomers and the first female one.  During the 1840s, the King of Denmark gave an annual award to people who discovered comets.  In 1841, Mitchell discovered a comet and was up for the award.  However, there were astronomers who felt that she did not deserve to get it and raised quite a furor over the matter.  Finally, the Danish authorities intervened and Mitchell got her medal.

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Harvard Observatory hired a number of women to do mathematical work and measurements of images on glass photographic plates.  Much like Katherine Johnson and her team, these women were referred to as “computers”.  Unlike Johnson, these computers earned sweatshop wages.  But, it was far safer than most of the work women got in that era, working in dangerous mills as well as garment manufacturing (anybody recall the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?). One of these women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was assigned the task of studying stars on glass photographic plates.  Her job was to locate stars in the Magellanic Clouds that varied in brightness.  Doing so, she discovered that one class of stars (what we call Cepheid variables) had a brightness that was proportional to their period (cycle of variability).  This became known as the period-luminosity relationship and laid the foundation for finding distances to nearby galaxies.  Since she was just a lowly computer, her bosses took credit for the discovery.  But the truth eventually won out and the story is well known in astronomical circles today.

I could go on and on with other examples, such as the career of Lise Meitner, who had to contend with sexism as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, the story of how Watson and Crick might have “borrowed” information from a female colleague to aid their discovery of the structure of DNA, but here is a case of how a woman scientist made a discovery, only to have it stolen from her.

In 1968, Jocelyn Bell was working at Cambridge when she made an odd discovery.  When the radio telescope was pointed at a spot in the constellation of Vulpecula, a rapid pulsing signal was detected.  The pulses were very precise, enough that some people thought it was an alien radio beacon.  This idea soon fell by the wayside and it was learned that the object responsible was a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted radio energy like the beam of a lighthouse.  Once the significance of this became apparent, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, Bell’s bosses, took credit for the discovery.  Though she did win a Michelson Award (along with Anthony Hewish) in 1973, she was totally ignored when the Nobel prize in physics was handed out in 1974 with Hewish and Ryle getting the prize.  Despite protests from other prominent physicists, Bell was denied Nobel recognition.  While the history books got things right in the end, it was too late for Bell to get the prize.  But she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II some years later.

Sometimes, the side of good wins.  In 1979, Voyager 1 passed through by Jupiter and made many observations.  About three days after closest approach, navigation engineers were poring over the images sent back.  This was to refine the position of the spacecraft as well as the orbits of the Galilean moons.  One of those people, a woman by the name of Linda Morabito, noticed something odd in an image of Io.  It appeared that there was a limb of another moon peeking out from behind Io. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Morabito enhanced the image and, probably echoing the thought of Han Solo when he first saw the Death Star, found that was no moon.

converted PNM file

The first image of Io’s volcanism

It was actually the plume from a volcanic eruption on Io, the first display of active volcanism outside Earth.  Morabito was determined to get credit for this find and pushed her case.  Finally, with the mainstream media on her side, she was credited with the find, securing her place in scientific history.

These days, Morabito is involved in advocating for science.  In additon to her personal website, she also maintains a Facebook group, Linda Morabito’s Space Place where she offers commentary on various scientific issues.

So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the contributions women have made in science and let’s hope for the day when science gives credit where it is due without regard to whether it was a man or a woman who made the discovery.

Happy 50th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966.  While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.

As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk.  Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary.  This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories.  While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths).  This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.

Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society.  It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series.  Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise.  And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.

However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends.  One prominent example is research into teleportation.  It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B.  The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination.  But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future.  What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away.  While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.

Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive.  Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light.  While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background.  In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish.  Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.

But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships.  However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with.  In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous.  It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field.  And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control.  However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea.  White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter.  That is still quite a bit of energy.  White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.

Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”.  And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program).  Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).

Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”.  Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store.  Even the security guards were frightened.  The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle.  He explained that he used to be a skinhead.  One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes.  As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues.  He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go.  The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.

Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions.  On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier.  A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics.  Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor.  Did the GMA story bring that up?  No, it didn’t.  Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been.  Why did the folks at GMA do this?  One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise.  I suspect something more vile.  Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor.  Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor.  Was racism involved?  Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.

On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels.  They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise.  With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary?  And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?

In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.



Why Wink When You Should Salute?

August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface.  Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it.  I feel that does not go far enough.  One should salute it instead.

One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero.  While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.

In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea.  On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes.  For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp.  But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot.  He managed to maintain some control over the plane.  While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range.  Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base.  Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject.  Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.

Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission.  This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit.  The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket.  Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner.  Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked.  The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin.  What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability.  Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered.  Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately.  But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.

However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness.  There was his character.  He never bragged about his heroic deeds.  When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft.  He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics.  If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.

Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first.  After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted.  Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation.  At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.

So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute.  Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.

Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?

Veterans Day 2014

In honor of both Veterans Day (today – November 11th) and Marine Corps Day (November 10th), I present a link to a post on the Bizarre History Blog (haven’t figured out how to reblog a post from that blog) where Dr. Beachcombing tells the story of Guy Gabaldon, one of the most unusual World War II heroes that you probably have never heard of.

I also would like to extend a “Semper Fi” to any Marines who happen to be reading this and also wish all veterans a meaningful Veterans Day.

Columbus: Too Flawed to Be a Hero?

Homeland Security (Native American style)

An increasingly popular sentiment about Columbus and his voyages.

Sorry about the lack of postings, but I have been under the weather lately.  Nothing serious, just terribly annoying.

Now on to the discussion.  Today is the day the U.S. government sets aside to honor the first transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus back in 1492.  The discoveries he made are well known and their story is not going to be repeated here.  But what will be discussed is whether or not Columbus is worthy of being considered a hero.

Given the primitive state of ships and navigation in that era, Columbus proved himself to be an exceptional seaman and navigator.  Unfortunately, he falls far short of being heroic when it comes to character.

For starters, he was a very dishonest man.  True, he lied to the natives, but all the explorers of the New World did.  But Columbus also lied to his sponsors (the Spanish royalty).  The professors at the University of Salamanca knew that Columbus’ figures concerning the circumference of the Earth, the extent of Asia, and even that of Europe were seriously fudged and tried to warn Ferdinand and Isabella about that.

He also lied to his crew, especially on the first voyage when he kept two separate logs, an accurate one for his private use and another falsified one for showing to the crew.

And it seems that Columbus had an idea that where he was going was not the wealthy areas of China and Japan.  One third of the cargo capacity on his vessels was taken up by cheap junk such as glass beads, hawkbells, and other trinkets.  If one was going to one of the richest nations on Earth, you wouldn’t bring junk to trade.  But, if you knew there were going to be primitive people who would be in awe of such junk, a move like that would make sense.

Now, where would Columbus get that kind of idea?   Here is a plausible theory.  It is known that when Columbus was a sailor on a merchant vessel, one of the ports that he visited was in Iceland.  And Iceland was settled by the Vikings, the folks who discovered Vinland and set up a settlement at L’ans Aux Meadows  in Canada (being the first confirmed Europeans to visit the New World – there have been claims that some Irish hermits might have come earlier, but their style of discovery that Dr. Beachcombing describes as “kamikaze exploration” pretty much rules out returning to report said discoveries and bragging about them) in about 1000 AD, which lasted a few years until the Vikings were driven out by a native insurgency campaign.   One can imagine Columbus sitting in a local Icelandic bar with his shipmates when a local guy tells them a weird story that there were these lands across the Atlantic inhabited by primitive people (a memory of Vinland).  This could have fired Columbus’ imagination and spurred his desire to check it out for himself.  Figuring that there were lands across the ocean in warmer climates than old Vinland, he probably started formulating a plan.

So, even he was not the first to sail to the New World.  Yet, even with all his character flaws and ending up in disgrace, losing every accolade his discoveries brought him, he is still regarded by some as a hero.  Why is this?

The answer is obvious.  Italian-Americans, like every other ethnic group, felt a need of a hero of their own.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I feel that there are better choices, people who are of better character than Columbus.  One example might be Gugielmo Marconi, the man who invented radio communication.  While Marconi’s wireless could only handle Morse code, it laid the groundwork for radio and television.  Then there is Enrico Fermi, a brilliant physicist who used his skills to aid the U.S. war effort in World War II.

But, if the Italian-American community wants a hero whose courage and character is beyond reproach, might I suggest none other than John Basilone?  Basilone served in the Marines in World War II and, with a small handful of men, helped hold off a massive Japanese assault on an airfield at Guadalcanal in 1942.  His feats of heroism and great strength (at one point he had to run while carrying a 90-lb+ machine gun and a large load of ammunition in order to bring it back to the American lines) earned him a Medal of Honor.  The government then had Basilone sent back to the United States and put him on a war bond drive.  He was also offered a promotion to be an officer and spend the rest of the war in the U.S.  But, he felt a sense of duty to his comrades in the Pacific and went back.  Basilone then distinguished himself heroically at Iwo Jima in 1945, but was killed.  Here is a more detailed account of Basilone and his heroism.

Isn’t John Basilone a more worthy hero for Italian-Americans than a superb sailor and navigator who was dishonest and is increasingly viewed as a villain?

Looking Like Old Times?

While looking through one of the History Roundups over at the Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog (History Roundup #183 to be precise), I came across an article concerning a book that discusses how a society consisting of a number of countries all interconnected by diplomacy, commerce, and military alliances could be brought down by changes in the climate, pressure on agricultural resources, masses of refugees, and outside aggressors.

No, this wasn’t one of those books like Thom Hartmann’s “The Crash of 2016” concerning a possible economic disaster of epic proportions, nor is it a book set in the near future.  This book is “1177 BC: The Year Civilization Ended” by Eric H. Cline, and it describes the circumstances that brought about the near-simultaneous collapse of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Mycenaean Greeks, and other societies in the late Bronze Age.

The fact that the description of the book’s thesis sounds so familiar to us is exactly the point that Cline is trying to make.  We may be heading down a similar path as Cline feels that there are similarities between modern Western civilization and the network of societies in that era.  I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know if Cline believes that we can prevent this fate or if it is inevitable.

I suspect that it is likely an inevitable fate.  As Douglas Adams once observed, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”  But, it could be argued that we have a few more tricks up our sleeves than the folks in the Bronze Age did, so we might be able to avert this disaster.

Is Cline on the right track, or is he finding similarities between our era and those days that don’t really exist?  If he is right, are we capable of avoiding the kind of catastrophe that befell those ancient societies?