“Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good…When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move”*…
Your correspondent is headed off to his daughter’s graduation– a process rather lengthier and more complex than in the distant past, when he “walked.” Posts will resume on or around June 1. In the meantime, Gaudeamus Igitur, y’all…
The levees of the 1920s were about six times as high as their earlier predecessors, but really no more effective. In a sense, they had been an empirical experiment — in aggregate, fifteen hundred miles of trial and error.
— John McPhee, The Control of Nature
Last month, the United States issued Patent No. 9,000,000 (for a rainwater-harvesting windshield washer). Every patent tells a story, and a virtual tour through the archive offers a remarkable view of American society, policy, industry, and environment. Here we find technologies that shape a nation but many more machines that fail and ideas that never catch on. Yet to regard the patent office merely as a protectionist legal institution or a hall of curiosities is a mistake, for if every lost invention represents an alternate history, it also contains the seeds of a possible future.
This is especially true for patents granted under the Department of Interior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the infrastructures that supported national expansion were being developed, tested, and improved. Consider the history of attempts to control and modify American rivers, culminating in the vast levee systems that transformed the Mississippi River Basin and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, opening vital transportation corridors and buildable lands while devastating riparian and coastal ecosystems. Behind every mainstream levee technology — every dragline excavator and clamshell dredge — there is a host of forgotten and highly speculative inventions that would have produced a very different landscape: the levees that might have been…
* Robert Plant/Led Zeppelin
As we watch the water rise, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794. One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing: He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).
In August of 1977, volunteer astronomer Jerry Ehman reviewed readings from Ohio State’s Big Ear Radio Observatory (that’s a scan, above, of Ehman’s notations on the print-out he was assessing)…
He was sitting in his kitchen when he spotted a pattern that a couple of physicists had theorized 18 years earlier would signify alien chatter, according to Michael Brooks, the author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense . The printout read 6EQUJ5, a human way of cataloging the 72-second burst of sound registering at a frequency of 1420 MHz. The significance? E.T. may have phoned our home long before Spielberg set otherworldly hearts aglow with his 1982 film…
Scientists have rules out terrestrial sources– the signal came from “out there.” So there are two possibilities: It was an actual alien communication, or Ehman stumbled across a previously undiscovered natural astrophysical phenomenon. And as H. Paul Shuch (an engineer, radio astronomer, and executive director emeritus of the SETI League) observes, “either one would be worthy of a Nobel Prize, if only we knew which.”
Read the whole story at “The ‘Wow’ Signal. or That Time Jerry Ehman May Have Heard From Aliens.”
* Aeschylus, The Suppliant Maidens
As we phone home, we might spare a thought for Martin Gardner; he died on this date in 2010. Though not an academic, nor ever a formal student of math or science, he wrote widely and prolifically on both subjects in such popular books as The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion and as the “Mathematical Games” columnist for Scientific American. Indeed, his elegant– and understandable– puzzles delighted professional and amateur readers alike, and helped inspire a generation of young mathematicians.
Gardner’s interests were wide; in addition to the math and science that were his power alley, he studied and wrote on topics that included magic, philosophy, religion, and literature (c.f., especially his work on Lewis Carroll– including the delightful Annotated Alice— and on G.K. Chesterton). And he was a fierce debunker of pseudoscience: a founding member of CSICOP, and contributor of a monthly column (“Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” from 1983 to 2002) in Skeptical Inquirer, that organization’s monthly magazine.
”Google Earth is marvelous and changed the way we live more than we imagine,” [artist Federico Winer] writes. “We use it as a tool to travel, to find addresses, to explore our world, so the next level was to convert that tool into an artistic expression.”
That’s what his Ultradistancia project is all about. Winer infuses Google Earth landscapes with vivid color—distorting them and making the shapes, contours, and patterns on the planet’s surface pop. As the project’s name suggests, the idea is to become intimate with these mini-portraits of Earth, from afar…
* “Mel Bernstein” (Haris Yulin), Scarface
As we mind the gap, we might send lofty birthday greetings to Glenn Hammond Curtiss; he was born on this date in 1878. While it’s generally accepted that the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, Curtiss took the plane from its wood, fabric, and wire beginnings to the earliest versions of the modern transport aircraft we know today. Curtiss made his first flight on his 30th birthday (this date in 1908), in White Wing, a design of the Aerial Experiment Association, a group led by Alexander Graham Bell. White Wing was the first plane in America to be controlled by ailerons (instead of the wing-warping used by the Wrights) and the first plane on wheels in the U.S. Curtiss went on to found the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company (now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation), and to make dozens of contributions to the technology of flight. Perhaps most notably his experiments with seaplanes during the years leading up to World War I led to major advances in naval aviation; indeed, Curtiss civil and military aircraft were predominant in the inter-war and World War II eras.
This map of medicinal plants depicts one or two important species that grew in each state in 1932, identifying the plant as native or cultivated and describing its medical uses. A few species of seaweeds float in the map’s Atlantic Ocean, and the border identifies important medicinal plants from around the world.
The map, printed by the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association for use of pharmacists during a promotional campaign called Pharmacy Week, was intended to boost the image of the profession. At a time when companies were increasingly compounding new pharmaceuticals in labs, pharmacists wanted to emphasize their ability to understand and manipulate the familiar medicinal plants that yielded reliable “vegetable drugs.” “Intense scientific study, expert knowledge, extreme care and accuracy are applied by the pharmacist to medicinal plants and drugs,” the box of text in the map’s lower left-hand corner reads, “from the point of origin through the intricate chemical, botanical, and pharmaceutical processes employed in preparing medicine.”
As historians Arthur Daemmrich and Mary Ellen Bowden write, the early 1930s were a turning point in the pharmaceutical industry. In the previous decades, chemists working for large companies had begun to systematically invent new medicines for the first time, developing synthesized aspirin and vaccines for diseases like tetanus and diphtheria. The 1938 Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act would bring a heightened level of federal regulation to the production of new medicines. And in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, researchers would go on to invent a flood of new antibiotics, psychotropics, antihistamines, and vaccines, increasingly relying on synthetic chemistry to do so. The pharmacist’s direct relationship to the preparation of medicine would diminish accordingly.
More at “A Depression-Era Medicinal Plant Map of the United States“; visit the map’s page on the David Rumsey Map Collection website.
* Genesis 1:29
As we take our pick, we might recall that it was on this date in 1727 that Dr. James Lind, a Royal Navy surgeon, began an experiment designed to determine a remedy for the scurvy that was afflicting many British sailors. Suspecting that diet was involved, Lind divided a dozen crewmen on the HMS Salisbury who were stricken with scurvy into six groups of two and administered specific dietetic supplements to each group. The two lucky sailors who were fed lemon and oranges for six days recovered, and one was even declared fit for duty before the Salisbury reached port– thus demonstrating (before Vitamin C had been identified) that regular intake of citrus could prevent (or cure) scurvy.
“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is”*…
Alien and Star Wars art director Roger Christian was given £25,000 by George Lucas in 1979 to make a 25-minute medieval B-feature called Black Angel. This spiritual tale of a knight on a strange quest was inspired by Christian’s near-fatal fever when he fell ill in Mexico making Lucky Lady. Black Angel made a huge impression, not least because it shared the dark tone of Empire Strikes Back. John Boorman showed it to the crew of Excalibur as a template for how he wanted his film to look, and Black Angel went on to influence films such as Dragonslayer and Legend throughout the 1980s and beyond. But it has not been seen by anyone since ‘Empire’ finished its theatrical run. Two weeks ago Roger Christian unearthed a print of a film that was thought lost forever, and in this interview he talks about Black Angel, and provides the only picture from the film that has ever hit the Internet.
– Via Slashdot (2010)
As obvious above, Black Angel is now on YouTube. What was once thought lost is found. Enjoy.
As we transport ourselves to a time a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we might recall that it was on this date in 1999, after 22 years, that Star Wars officially returned to the big screen with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first of three prequels to the extremely successful original Star Wars trilogy. Despite mixed reviews and much fan criticism of the character of Jar-Jar Binks, The Phantom Menace was a massive box office success, earning over $920 million on a $115 million budget.
Trinidad and Tobago, the tiny twin-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, has struck gold. Its newly re-released $50 note (TT) earned top billing in this year’s competition convened by the International Bank Note Society (IBNS).
Designed in partnership with the British banknote manufacturer De La Rue to commemorate the 50th (golden) anniversary of the country’s Central Bank, the $50 note shows familiar takes on its national symbols like its coat of arms, a red hibiscus flower, and a red capped cardinal bird, its wings fanned out like a palm tree. The back of the note depicts a smiling carnival dancer, collaged in front of the 22-story Central Bank and Ministry of Finance twin towers, which are the tallest buildings in the entire country…
Read the whole story and see the runners-up at “The world’s best banknotes of the year.”
* Irving Berlin, “I Got the Sun in the Morning”
As we reach for our wallets, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Facebook went public. The IPO was the biggest in technology and one of the biggest in Internet history, with a peak market capitalization of over $104 billion. Some pundits called it a “cultural milestone”; in any case, a great deal of money was “printed.”