Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Have You Ever Seen A Blue Rose? A Horticultural Problem

From July 30, 1911

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A BLUE ROSE? A HORTICULTURAL PROBLEM

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A BLUE ROSE? A HORTICULTURAL PROBLEM: Many Varieties of the Queen of Flowers Created in a Century, but Blue Roses Still Elusive. (PDF)

This article gives a nice background on the history of roses as a coveted flower, and then gets into the matter of a blue rose.

A blue rose is held to be about the hardest thing in the flower-growing world to attain…

It can’t be done by any chemical process, of course. Any one rose can easily be made blue, but there is no known way of treating the soil in which a bush grows so as to change the color of all its flowers, and even if there were such a way the progeny of the roses would revert to the ancestral type. The blue rose is to be obtained — if it ever is attained — by combining roses of different colors and using the most promising as parents for a newer and bluer race.

There has been a pale lavenderish-blue rose produced by a German grower, but it is not by any means a true blue.

Well, that problem vexed growers for another 100 years until a Japanese company proclaimed that after twenty years of research and three billion yen, they genetically engineered a blue rose. Well, I guess it’s sort of blue. To me it looks like a pale lavenderish-blue, not by any means a true blue.

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Written by David

July 25th, 2011 at 9:00 am

Posted in Nature,Science

How To Overcome Gravity By Hertzian Air Waves

From July 16, 1911

HOW TO OVERCOME GRAVITY BY HERTZIAN AIR WAVES

HOW TO OVERCOME GRAVITY BY HERTZIAN AIR WAVES: New York Engineer and Inventor Thinks He Has Discovered a Secret of Science on Which He Began Work at West Point Nearly 40 Years Ago. (PDF)

Levitation. It holds such promise. But this machine doesn’t make things levitate. It just makes them weigh less. The article describes some possible uses of such an anti-gravity machine:

If a 12-ton girder was to be raised to the top of a skyscraper with a derrick of 10 tons capacity, the mechanism would obliterate the two tons of weight.

The element of gravitation in any object being overcome to the extent of one-sixth or a greater degree, it would be possible to make the human body so “light” that it could be propelled with a very small fraction of present effort.

Steamships could ride more lightly on the sea in the same way. The speed of railroad trains could be increased by the contrivance reducing the friction of the wheels on the tracks.

An aeroplane caught high in air with a broken engine could be made to float there indefinitely by turning a button and starting the “concentrating dynamo.”

Farrow never filed a patent for his device, and no construction plans have been found. The book The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers says:

Observers watched as the indicated weight of the book dropped by three ounces, or one-fifth. “This is revolutionary — even sensation,” marveled one of the editors invited to see the invention in action. It almost certainly wasn’t antigravity, though, not in the sense Farrow intended… Modern speculation has accepted that it was based around electromagnets.

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Written by David

July 11th, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Science,Technology

The American Student Acquiring A Uniform Face

From July 9, 1911

THE AMERICAN STUDENT ACQUIRING A UNIFORM FACE

THE AMERICAN STUDENT ACQUIRING A UNIFORM FACE: Mayor Gaynor’s Statement to That Effect Starts a Discussion — A Distinct American College Type Being Developed, Unlike the European University Man (PDF)

The two faces in the middle of the page are composites of 25 boys and 25 girls, to create the “typical” student face. In modern times, this has been done digitally to interesting effects. I wonder if this is the earliest known example of such a composite.

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Written by David

July 7th, 2011 at 11:30 am

How A Great Invention By Edison Was Lost

From July 9, 1911

HOW A GREAT INVENTION BY EDISON WAS LOST

HOW A GREAT INVENTION BY EDISON WAS LOST: Separated Fiber by a Liquid Compound, But an Assistant Threw the Secret Away (PDF)

And the moral of the story is: backup backup backup.

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Written by David

July 4th, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in Science

Scientific Detective Would End Expert Testimony

From July 2, 1911

SCIENTIFIC DETECTIVE WOULD END EXPERT TESTIMONY

SCIENTIFIC DETECTIVE WOULD END EXPERT TESTIMONY: Head of Scotland Yard’s Bureau of Identification Urges Training of Sleuths — What Finger Print System and Blood Study Have Done. (PDF)

Fingerprints and blood are commonly gathered and tested in crime scenes today. But 100 years ago, this was new technology.

…if detectives were only trained scientifically, not merely in logic, so as to reconstruct a crime with proper attention paid to theory and fact, but also in chemistry, physics, and other sciences, there would be less need of expert testimony at criminal trials…

If the article interests you, definitely read Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, about a New York City murder investigation around the turn of the last century.

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Written by David

June 28th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Sir Hiram Maxim Exposes Spiritualistic Mediums

From June 18, 1911

SIR HIRAM MAXIM EXPOSES SPIRITUALISTIC MEDIUMS

SIR HIRAM MAXIM EXPOSES SPIRITUALISTIC MEDIUMS: Noted Inventor Proves Tomsons, Whom William T. Stead Exploited at Private Seances, Were Merely Clever Tricksters. (PDF)

A great story of debunking fraudsters:

Mr. and Mrs. Tomson were itinerant American music hall artists of comparatively mediocre ability, until taken under the protective wing of William T. Stead, the English editor and journalist. The Tomsons were performing in London when they were first brought to the attention of Mr. Stead by a fellow music hall juggler.

Their act was a fairly clever bit of trickery or sleight of hand, accompanied with all the necessary stage hand assistance. They claimed no mediumistic or supernatural powers for themselves during their early London season, but later they discovered that to be a “spookist” in gullible London meant an augmentation of their financial condition, and added a value to their stage career which in their wildest flights of ambition they had not dreamed of.

[…]

When Sir Hiram Maxim read that his friend William Stead was publicly announcing that he had seen and touched his dead son, Sir Hiram called on Mr. Stead. Their conversation was as follows:

Sir Hiram — Look here, Stead, those spookists are fooling you. You’re too trusting and sincere for those clever rascals.

Mr. Stead — But, Sir Hiram, they showed me my son. Don’t you think I would know Willie?

Sir Hiram — See here, Stead, old fellows like you and Sir Oliver Lodge and myself have no business pronouncing this kind of people genuine. We ought to pass that up to school boys who are full of tricks themselves, or to Americans like the Tomsons, who know more tricks in ten minutes than we do in eight generations…

Mr. Stead — I tell you I saw my son.

Sir Hiram — Swank! You are too honest to catch those tricksters.

Mr. Stead — Then suppose you try.

Sir Hiram — Done! And I’ll make a good job of it, too.

I’ll leave it to you to read how Hiram Maxim exposed the frauds on more than one occasion. Predictably, the Tomsins excuse was that “although the medium really had the power… she could not do so at all times, and sometimes had to ‘fake’ a séance.” This is the same kind of excuse given by so-called psychics today when they are found to be using trickery. See for example Uri Geller.

In this case, Hiram Maxim exposed the Tomsons as frauds enough times that they finally confessed they have never had any supernatural powers of any kind.

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Written by David

June 17th, 2011 at 9:30 am

Two New Medicines Discovered In The Tropic Toad

From June 4, 1911

TWO NEW MEDICINES DISCOVERED IN THE TROPIC TOAD

TWO NEW MEDICINES DISCOVERED IN THE TROPIC TOAD: Science Upholds the Ancients in Therapeutic Use o the Toadskin and Powdered Toad, Thus Turning the Laugh on Modern Doctors (PDF)

For more recent information on toads, and the hallucinogenic properties of smoked toads, see the wikipedia entry on psychoactive toads,

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Written by David

June 3rd, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Recreation,Science

Seventeen-Year Locusts Here; Moths Even Worse

From May 28, 1911

SEVENTEEN-YEAR LOCUSTS HERE; MOTHS EVEN WORSE

SEVENTEEN-YEAR LOCUSTS HERE; MOTHS EVEN WORSE: Cicada Army Not the Most Destructive of Our Pests — How, thanks to Ineffective Laws, We Yearly Import Creatures That Cost Us Millions — Despite All Efforts Moths Steadily Increase. (PDF)

I don’t have time to write more comments on this article because I’m a brand new dad and need to focus on that for a bit. But please feel free to read the article and make your own comments.

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Written by David

May 26th, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Nature,Science

A Great Sixty-Inch Reflector Which Photographs The Stars

From May 21, 1911

A GREAT SIXTY-INCH REFLECTOR WHICH PHOTOGRAPHS THE STARS

A GREAT SIXTY-INCH REFLECTOR WHICH PHOTOGRAPHS THE STARS: Wonderful Instrument Erectred by the Carnegie Institution at Mount Wilson, California. (PDF)

The rest of this post is unwritten because I’m a brand new dad and need to focus on that for a bit. But please feel free to read the article and make your own comments.

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Written by David

May 17th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Nature,Science

Mrs. Belmont Training Girls To Be Agriculturists

From May 14, 1911

MRS. BELMONT TRAINING GIRLS TO BE AGRICULTURISTS

MRS. BELMONT TRAINING GIRLS TO BE AGRICULTURISTS: Nine of Them in Overalls Learning ‘How to Become Farmers and Landscape Gardeners on Her Estate at Hempstead, and They Are Only the Advance Guard. (PDF)

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Written by David

May 10th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Civilization Came From Africa, Not Asia, Says Mosso

From May 7, 1911

CIVILIZATION CAME FROM AFRICA, NOT ASIA, SAYS MOSSO

CIVILIZATION CAME FROM AFRICA, NOT ASIA, SAYS MOSSO: In His Work on “The Dawn of Mediterranean Civilization” He Gives the Aryan Theory a Hard Blow. (PDF)

The poor old Aryan theory, which broughtu s up to believe that all we know came originally from the Orient, has just had another blow. It was so tottering before that it could hardly stand and now Angelo Mosso in a work on “The Dawn of Mediterranean Civilization” gives it another rap.

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Written by David

May 4th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Life,Nature,Science

Centenary Of Maker Of First Portrait Photograph

From April 30, 1911

CENTENARY OF MAKER OF FIRST PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPH

CENTENARY OF MAKER OF FIRST PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPH: New York University Will Honor the Memory of Prof John William Draper, Who Took the First Human Likeness When Daguerre Failed to Do It. (PDF)

I’m a photographer professionally, so articles like this are especially interesting to me. This one celebrates the 100th birthday of John William Draper, credited with taking the first portrait photo, an image of his sister Dorothy.

Back then, photos required long exposures, so the subjects needed to sit extremely still. Draper experimented with putting white powder on people’s faces to lighten them up a bit for the picture. And he also realized that if a person sits still for a 30 second exposure, they can feel free to blink during that time without worrying about ruining the image. But any other movement must be considered and eliminated:

“The hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them so much as to make them have a thick, clumsy appearance, destroying also the representation of the veins on the back, which, if they are held motionless, are copied with surprising beauty.”

Here’s some more of Draper’s advice for a portrait sitting:

“It has already been stated that pictorial advantages attend an arrangement in which the light is thrown upon the face at a small angle. This also allows us to get rid entirely of the shadow on the background or to compose it more gracefully in the picture. For this it is well that the chair should be brought forward from the background from three to six feet.

“Those who undertake daguerreotype portraiture will, of course, arrange the background of their pictures according to their own tastes. When one that is quite uniform is desired, a blanket or a cloth of drab color, properly suspended, will be found to answer very well.”

While Draper took the first formal portrait, Louis Daguerre actually took the first photo of a person. He captured a photo looking out over a street in Paris. It was a long exposure, so people moving through the frame were not captured. But one person stood still long enough to register in the image while he was getting his shoe shined. But the figure is tiny and silhouetted, so it could hardly be called a portrait.

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Written by David

April 29th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Dr. William Hanna Thomson On The Origin Of Life

From April 23, 1911

DR. WILLIAM HANNA THOMSON ON THE ORIGIN OF LIFE

DR. WILLIAM HANNA THOMSON ON THE ORIGIN OF LIFE: Author of “Brain and Personality” Discusses the World’s Greatest Mystery, Which Has So Long Baffled Science. (PDF)

The last time we heard from Dr. Thomson, he was scolding Thomas Edison for not believing in a soul. So what does he say about the origin of life?

Well, nothing conclusive, of course, He mostly muses about how it’s an interesting question. He touches a little bit on the possibility of Intelligent Design, and marvels at how animals keep having offspring of the same species, but concludes that we really don’t know how it all works.

Every one of the millions of cells of [an elephant’s] future body must develop from that first cell. They are all constructed on the elephant-cell pattern, and according to no other pattern. Each cell must contain an even, never an odd, number, in its nucleus of those little bodies called chromosemes, and upon which heredity depends, because finally that first cell contains something which determines that it will grow into an elephant and not into a frog, according to its hereditary descent from the first elephant.

As a result, the absolute absurdity of the supposition of the spontaneous generation of life appears when we consider that it is not a living substance or thing which we are invenstigating, but a thing which can be a dot and then an animal, and then a dot again for any number of times. It would be easier to imagine a watch spontaneously generating itself than for an oak to become an acorn and then an oak again, and so on through all the years of its geological period.

Reproduction of like from like by means of an inconceivably complex series of connected changes is a characteristic of life only. It has not a single analogue in the non-living kingdom. There is no such thing as hereditary fire, though it may spread, any more than a hereditary glacier, however it may grow by accumulating snow and ice.

His musings take him in directions touching on genetics, but it would be about 25 more years before DNA was understood to be a building block of life.

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Written by David

April 18th, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Nature,Science

Stories That Modern Science Has Made Impossible

From March 26, 1911

STORIES THAT MODERN SCIENCE HAS MADE IMPOSSIBLE

STORIES THAT MODERN SCIENCE HAS MADE IMPOSSIBLE: Why the Classics of Poe, Hoffman, and Others Seem Antiquated To-day. (PDF)

This amusing piece supposes that modern technology is making scary stories impossible.

It is lucky for us that Poe, Hoffman, Andersen, and other chroniclers of the great unknown lived years ago. For mystery and romance have suffered greatly at the hands of modern science and inventions. Electricity is the worst offender in that respect, as it has killed more goblins than all the grandmothers ever created.

Think how much richer in unearthly being the world was in the day of the tallow candle, the oil lamp, and the flintlock. Imagine your great-great-grandfather coming home at, say, 1 in the morning; the house he returned to was one of those immense, gaunt mansions, built piece by piece, wing by wing, of wood that creaked and moaned when the night wind rose or when the worms were milling slowly, stubbornly, the heart of the beams into impalpable, yellow flour. Your great-great-grandfather’s conscience may have troubled him a little, for he may have partaken of a trifle too much of he cheering claret.

When the street door’s lock had clicked behind him he stood enshrouded in the hostile darkness of the endless corridors; echoes magnified the noise of every motion, his breath sounded like a cyclone. A match finally consented to burn, and its flicker only helped him to realize the thickness of the velvety pall.

The lamp was located; its chimney struck, but finally yielded just before all that was left of the match was a short, winking ember. Another match was struck and this time the wick, with much spluttering, emitted a little light; back went the chimney to its socket, and the shade that surmounted it divided this mystic worlds of darkness into two regions — the table and a part of the floor were immersed in a soft yellow gleam. Above the shade, however, ghosts and goblins, frightened an instant by man’s intrusion, resumed their play.

Scary.

On a similar note, here are some stories that cell phones have made impossible. And here’s a list of Seinfeld episodes that could not have happened with today’s modern technology.

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Written by David

March 25th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Blood Tests In Criminal Cases No Longer Uncertain

From March 26, 1911

BLOOD TESTS IN CRIMINAL CASES NO LONGER UNCERTAIN

BLOOD TESTS IN CRIMINAL CASES NO LONGER UNCERTAIN: Murderers Can No Longer Be Shielded by Doubtful Analysis, for the Newest Biological Chemistry Can Now Tell Human Blood Stains from Others. (PDF)

Those fluent in biochemistry may enjoy the details, but the gist of the article is summed up in the second paragraph:

It has often happened in murder trials that the guilt or innocence of the prisoner depended entirely on the ability of expert witnesses to determine whether or not certain stains were caused by human blood. Formerly, this was a difficult question to decide. The revelations of biological chemistry, however, have made the tests comparatively easy. In fact, it is not too much to say that the tests used nowadays to settle the question whether certain stain, be they new or old, were made by human blood, constitute an exact science.

This reminds me to recommend The Alienist, Caleb Carr’s murder mystery set in 1896 New York City, to those of you who have never read it. The protagonist uses newly developed techniques (like fingerprint matching, for example) to solve the crime. It’s a very good read.

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Written by David

March 23rd, 2011 at 9:30 am

Can Science Hereafter Grow Giants At Will?

From March 26, 1911

CAN SCIENCE HEREAFTER GROW GIANTS AT WILL?

CAN SCIENCE HEREAFTER GROW GIANTS AT WILL? Recent Researches Seem to Point to the Pituitary Gland as Holding the Secret of the Size of Human Beings — Gigantism Is a Disease, Which May Be Artificially Produced. (PDF)

Science has at last figured out a way to promote desirable physical traits without eugenics: gland stimulation!

Fancy, for instance, the production to order of a regiment of soldiers each exactly seven feet tall; or, a group of eight-foot giants for the circus or museum. If the theory held by many is correct, this can readily be accomplished by stimulating the pituitary body to hyper-activity. On the other hand, b diminishing the activity of the gland we could arrest growth and produce a group of dwarfs. In other words, persons old enough to know just what height they wished to attain could have it regulated to order, or be “made to measure.”

The workings of the pituitary gland were still not understood. A prominent Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in London surmised further:

Science, therefore, holds out the hope that people may not only be able to regulate their height, but beauty doctors may be able to work on strictly scientific principles.

“If a lady, for instance, did not think that her nose was symmetrical, a doctor could bring it to the shape required by means of a pituital sandwich. In fact, the plainest people might be made beautiful.”

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Written by David

March 21st, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Nature,Science

Welsh Rabbit As Harmless And Wholesome As Meat

From March 12, 1911

WELSH RABBIT AS HARMLESS AND WHOLESOME AS MEAT

WELSH RABBIT AS HARMLESS AND WHOLESOME AS MEAT: No More Can the Chafing Dish Product Be Blamed for Nightmares, Since Cheese Is Perfectly Digestible According to Tests Made by Government Experts (PDF)

Welsh Rabbit contains no rabbit. Its main ingredient is melted cheese. One theory about the name is that it’s supposed to be a joke: when only well-off people could afford butcher’s meat, rabbit was considered the poor-man’s meat in England; but in Wales, cheese was the poor-man’s rabbit.

The only time I’ve ever eaten Welsh Rabbit was at Moby’s vegetarian cafe called teany on the Lower East Side. It was listed as Welsh Rarebit on the menu, a popular variation on the name Welsh Rabbit. I’d never heard of it before, and had no idea really what I was ordering. It was delicious. But it may have had some sort of vegan cheese substitute; I don’t remember.

Anyway, apparently there was some concern over cheese back in 1911. It was feared that it could not be digested as well as meat. So the government ran some tests.

The United States Government has given [cheese] fair trial before that august organization, the Department of Agriculture, and has acquitted her of all the dire charges that have been cumulatively piled up against her through the years that have passed. One after another, in the face of the facts, have these charges evaporated into thin air. One after another have those food products deemed fittest by the dietary orthodox entered the lists with despised cheese and been unhorsed. When the battling was over there was but one claimant for honors remaining as a competitor to cheese and that competitor was the humble bean. All the others of those staple foods that go to make up the breakfast, dinner and supper of the ninety millions had gone down in defeat.

Now the Department of Agriculture reports that cheese is as digestible as the average meats. It carries, weight for weight, twice the nourishment that is contained in your Britisher’s beef. It has as much nourishment as its weight in bacon or ham, and is more digestible. A pound of it is worth in nourishment three pounds of fish. And, greatest surprise of all, one pound of cheese has as much body-building material in it as has two pounds of the much-touted product of the over-worked American hen.

They are very excited about their cheese. If you consider yourself a cheese connoisseur, you will enjoy the excessive detail in the rest of the article.

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Written by David

March 10th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Science

To Make Beer Without Any Alcohol

From March 5, 1911

TO MAKE BEER WITHOUT ANY ALCOHOL

TO MAKE BEER WITHOUT ANY ALCOHOL (PDF)

Prohibition wouldn’t make its way into the Constitution for another nine years, but the movement already had momentum. There was a Prohibition political party, and in the 1850s thirteen states had passed laws prohibiting alcohol. Those experiments were not popular.

So is it a blessing or a curse that someone figured out how to make non-alcoholic beer?

“Mr. Overback [of the Criterion Restaurant] said that last year he discovered that he could drive carbonic acid gas produced from soda and sulphuric acid — therefore not fermentation gas with ethers or alcohol — through beer when he raised the temperature to above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the gas contained traces of alcohol as it escaped after having been driven through the beer in such conditions that the latter was converted into froth. When the temperature of the beer was raised to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and carbonic acid gas was driven through it, the percentage of alcoholic content becomes constantly less until the liquid might be made absolutely alcohol free.

“Before these experiments were made it was considered absolutely impossible to abstract alcohol from beer without placing that liquid under such conditions that it could not reasonably be hoped to continue the fermentation afterward on account of the heat required to separate the noxious excreta or alcohol. By the above-mentioned process he dealcoholized absolutely brilliant beer free from all except ultra-microscopical traces of yeast, and he continued the process by carbonic acid gas at 120 degrees Fahrenheit until the percentage of alcohol in the beer had been lowered from above 4 per cent to .2 absolute.”

This scientific breakthrough reached its ultimate pinnacle in 1992, when pranksters at Princeton threw a keg party and served non-alcoholic beer instead of the real deal, without telling anybody. Hilarity ensued.

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Written by David

March 2nd, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Science

Can Easily Add Fifteen Years To Our Average Life

From March 5, 1911

CAN EASILY ADD FIFTEEN YEARS TO OUR AVERAGE LIFE

CAN EASILY ADD FIFTEEN YEARS TO OUR AVERAGE LIFE: Prof. Irving Fisher, in a Comprehensive Report on National Vitality, Says What is Needed is a Little Care — Life Already Greatly Lengthened in Every Country Where Medical Science is Applied. (PDF)

First, the Magazine covered an article in which it was claimed that only three people ever lived to 100 years old. Then it ran an article saying that old age is a preventable disease. They continue this topic by now explaining how we can add 15 years to the average lifespan.

A then-recent report by the National Conservation Commission included a section on “National Vitality” which described how the average lifespan had significantly increased in the last 100 years. Expounding on that topic, economist Irving Fisher — who was also known for his ideas on health and longevity — here explains how we can increase the average lifespan yet another 15 years thanks to advances in science and medicine.

Fisher was a proponent of eugenics — the notion that we can improve our species through selective breeding, including sterilization of the mentally impaired — which was a much more popular movement before the Nazis used it as an excuse for mass slaughter. (Other eugenics proponents included John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes.) Fisher wrote a book called How to Live: Rules for Healthful Living Based on Modern Science which became a bestseller, and can be read for free here.

The average lifespan for men in the United States at the time was 44 years, and 46 for women. Today the numbers have gone up far more than 15 years, with the average lifespans being 75 and 80 years for men and women respectively. Eugenics has long since fallen out of favor as a movement, but the topic of forced sterilization still comes up now and then. Just a couple weeks ago it was in the news when a woman asked the courts to let her sterilize her daughter who has the body of an 18 year old, but the mind of a child.

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Written by David

February 28th, 2011 at 9:00 am

Posted in Life,Nature,Science

Alchemy, Long Scoffed At, Turns Out To Be True

From February 19, 1911

ALCHEMY, LONG SCOFFED AT, TURNS OUT TO BE TRUE

ALCHEMY, LONG SCOFFED AT, TURNS OUT TO BE TRUE: Transmutation of Metals, the Principle of the Philosopher’s Stone, Accomplished in the Twentieth Century. (PDF)

I haven’t seen a headline this misleading since the last time I read the Huffington Post. This article isn’t about the popularly envisioned application of alchemy — turning lead into gold — and it really has nothing to do with anything scientists did, per se. It just describes the natural process of radioactive decay.

Every once in a while we read of a business man, or even a great scientist, who has been deceived by some one who claimed he could make gold or silver. Occasionally an item in the paper tells of the death of some one killed by fumes or by the explosion of a retort while experimenting in search for chemically made gold.

The odd thing is that after solemn men of weight in the world of learning have been for generations showing us what fools or knaves the alchemists were, modern science takes a sharp turn and shows that they were in their fundamental contention probably quite right. But — and this is a large but — they were wrong in thinking that the process by which one metal may turn into another can be hastened any more than it can be retarded. Science does not say that it would not be possible to do either of these things, but it does say most emphatically that the secret is still a long way off, and that the process that would turn lead to gold, or vice versa, would incidentally enable us to do so many other things that civilization would be changed upside down, and the mere gold that might be produced would sink into laughable insignifigance.

A generation or two ago the world was just beginning to make scientific discoveries, and naturally had come to the conclusion that it knew pretty nearly all there was to be known. But to-day the transmutation of one element into another is an accomplished scientific fact. It is proved that certain elements are perpetually changing into certain other elements, and it is more than suspected that what is known to be true of a few elements is true of all. These discoveries came about, of course, through radium. Every idea that is topsy-turvy has come about through the discovery of radium. We might have gone on for another century quite content with the old idea of the nature of matter if that baffling and contradictory thing had not been found one fateful day by the Curies.

As for the accuracy of the headline, the wikipedia entry on nuclear transmutation contains this nice anecdote:

[The phrase “nuclear transmutation”] was first consciously applied to modern physics by Frederick Soddy when he, along with Ernest Rutherford, discovered that radioactive thorium was converting itself into radium in 1901. At the moment of realization, Soddy later recalled, he shouted out: “Rutherford, this is transmutation!” Rutherford snapped back, “For Christ’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.”

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Written by David

February 17th, 2011 at 10:30 am

Posted in Nature,Science