Tag Archives: History

A not so brief history of scurvy

It turns out that we found, then lost, the cure for scurvy well before we eventually identified it as Vitamin C.  There is an incredible write up of that story.

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind
proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus
fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we
were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be
mixed in with sailors’ grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long
ocean voyages.

But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of
what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained
group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about
scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. Scott left a
base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime
juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection
against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What
happened?

It’s really fascinating, definitely worth your time.

Ars Technica – The complicated history of simple scientific facts

Sometimes, even as a person pisses you off, they make a point that you can’t ignore. In a recent forum discussion that I was involved in, scientists were accused of making pronouncements from on high. The argument was that scientists jump to a conclusion that seems desirable to them, and then treat it as an infallible truth.

Of course, my initial reaction was to pronounce that I, as a practicing scientist, never make pronouncements. But, looking at my articles from the perspective of someone who really knows absolutely nothing about science—as a practice or as a body of knowledge—I can see how one could see little beyond a list of assertions. The truth is more complicated, of course, but it’s a truth that science writers find challenging to convey. Science is impossibly broad, and the leading edge sits, precariously balanced, on a huge, solid, and above all, old body of knowledge. To illustrate this problem, I am going to tell you the story about how the speed of light came to be the ultimate speed limit for the entire universe.

Thus begins Ars’s latest article on Science, and how something becomes a scientific fact.  This meshes quite nicely with my blog post from last week.

Galileo’s Telescope

When I found out that this weekend was the closing weekend for the Galileo exhibit at the Franklin Institute, I made some quick plans to go down and see it.  The exhibit was about the age of science and discovery at that time (400 years ago), with the center piece being 1 of the 2 surviving telescopes that Galileo made.  No pictures were allowed, but I found this one on the internet which must have been done as part of a press bit.

That’s it.  That wooden tube with a lens no larger than a quarter (and even a smaller aperture) is what discovered the moon wasn’t a perfect sphere, and that Jupiter had moons.  The publishing of those discoveries put the nail in the coffin of the heliocentric theory of the universe, and started to open our eyes to the wonders of what is out there.

As you can see, they set up the case so you can look through the telescope yourself.  You aren’t getting anywhere near the focal plane, so you can just see a bit of light, but it is still something to be able to look through the same lenses that created such a scientific revolution.  Later in the exhibit they had telescopes that had recreated lenses, and light projections of Jupiter and Saturn on a wall, so you could see what it looked like.

We stayed in the exhibit for 2 full hours.  I must have spent nearly 30 minutes milling around the telescope itself, chatting with, and listening to Frank, the museum staff that was manning the exhibit and telling great stories of it.  I hadn’t realized how much of an entrepreneur Galileo was, much like Ben Franklin.  After his discoveries, he got into the telescope making business, as owning a telescope (whether or not you knew how to use it) became high fashion for nobles of the day.   I also found out that our president made a point to come to the exhibit and see the telescope, which I appreciated. 

One last thing that Frank said really stuck with me.  The telescope is insured for 7 million dollars.  But he said “a dollar or a billion dollar’s, what’s the difference.  Once this is gone it can’t be replaced.”  The fact that the Italian government has managed to preserve 2 of Galileo’s telescopes for 400 years is a truly impressive feat.

The exhibit closes on Monday, and the telescope goes back to Italy.  It was only allowed to leave the country for this special International Year of Astronomy exhibit at the Franklin.  I’m very happy that we took the time to get down there, images of that telescope will be burned into my brain for a very long time.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” for the last couple of weeks, and this book is amazing.  Bill Bryson, most known for various humorous travel books, turned his eyes on the history and progression of science.  It’s a journey about what we know about the universe across many disciplines (astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology), and how we came to know that information.  The narrative is very compelling, and often similar in style to James Burke’s Connections (so if you loved that, you’ll love this.)

He uses big questions to drive the narrative.  The first of which is something that seemed like a simple question, “what is the age of the earth?”.  It’s somewhat surprising to realize that our current answer of 4.5 Billion years wasn’t figured out until the 1950s, and that that discovery was intertwined with the discovery of a massive cover up in the lead production industry on the health effects of lead, and would lead to the banning of the substance for fuel and paint. 

You get to see how the chains of science build upon one another, where a new better answer is made based on what came before, and how over time our methods continue to refine themselves.  The stories on the feuds in the dinosaur hunting communities are incredible.  It also goes to show that individuals shape history much more than they are often given credit for.  This is even more true in the fields of science, where a new discovery or insight often opens up massive new industries or fields of study.  None of modern gene sequencing and DNA analysis would be possible had not a curious researcher decided to take samples from Yellowstone’s hot springs and on a lark see if anything was alive in the boiling sulfuric waters.  This is even more amazing given that conventional wisdom at the time assured that no life was possible there.  Decades later we discovered that one of those microbes has a curious ability to crank out DNA copies, thus opening up the modern science of genetics.

I can’t say enough good things about this book.  It is a perfect, digestible, approach to science literacy.  Your understanding of the universe will be greatly enhanced in the process, and you’ll never quite look at a lump of dirt, a wispy cloud, or the night sky again.

Who knew that timezone history could be so compelling

I finally decided to find the base zoneinfo files that all timezone data in computing is computed from.  It turns out that the uncompiled files have an incredible amount of history embedded in them, including a number of really interesting stories.  Here are some exceprts:

# From Paul Eggert (2001-05-30):
# Howse writes that Alaska switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar,
# and from east-of-GMT to west-of-GMT days, when the US bought it from Russia.
# This was on 1867-10-18, a Friday; the previous day was 1867-10-06 Julian,
# also a Friday.  Include only the time zone part of this transition,
# ignoring the switch from Julian to Gregorian, since we can’t represent
# the Julian calendar.

# Since 1970, most of Indiana has been like America/Indiana/Indianapolis,
# with the following exceptions:
#
# – Gibson, Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton, Porter, Posey, Spencer,
#   Vandenburgh, and Warrick counties have been like America/Chicago.
#
# – Dearborn and Ohio counties have been like America/New_York.
#
# – Clark, Floyd, and Harrison counties have been like
#   America/Kentucky/Louisville.
#
# – Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Knox, Martin, Perry, Pike, Pulaski, Starke,
#   and Switzerland counties have their own time zone histories as noted below.
#
# Shanks partitioned Indiana into 345 regions, each with its own time history,
# and wrote “Even newspaper reports present contradictory information.”
# Those Hoosiers!  Such a flighty and changeable people!
# Fortunately, most of the complexity occurred before our cutoff date of 1970.
#
# Other than Indianapolis, the Indiana place names are so nondescript
# that they would be ambiguous if we left them at the `America’ level.
# So we reluctantly put them all in a subdirectory `America/Indiana’.

# Shanks writes that Michigan started using standard time on 1885-09-18,
# but Howse writes (pp 124-125, referring to Popular Astronomy, 1901-01)
# that Detroit kept
#
#    local time until 1900 when the City Council decreed that clocks should
#    be put back twenty-eight minutes to Central Standard Time.  Half the
#    city obeyed, half refused.  After considerable debate, the decision
#    was rescinded and the city reverted to Sun time.  A derisive offer to
#    erect a sundial in front of the city hall was referred to the
#    Committee on Sewers.  Then, in 1905, Central time was adopted
#    by city vote.
#
# This story is too entertaining to be false, so go with Howse over Shanks.

What’s also kind of interesting is the time offsets prior to standardization

# Zone    NAME        GMTOFF    RULES    FORMAT    [UNTIL]
Zone America/New_York    -4:56:02 –    LMT    1883 Nov 18 12:03:58
Zone America/Chicago    -5:50:36 –    LMT    1883 Nov 18 12:09:24
Zone America/Los_Angeles -7:52:58 –    LMT    1883 Nov 18 12:07:02

This has now inspired me to request Seize the Daylight from our local library.