It’s become cliché that unusually many prominent people died in 2016. Is this true?…
[Image above: source]
* François Rabelais
As we usher in the new, we might spare a thought for the first woman in the Western world considered to be a mathematician: Maria Gaetana Agnesi, she died this date in 1799. While she thought and wrote broadly about natural science and philosophy, she is best remembered for her work in differential calculus– perhaps most particularly for her work on the cubic curve now know as the “witch of Agnesi.”
Q1: What is, traditionally, the principal unit of measurement for measuring floorspace in Taiwan? Taipei 101’s floorspace of 379,296 square meters converts to about 114,737 of the unit in question.
Q2: If you’re playing Magic: The Gathering, what slangy verb (synonymous with poke, zap, and Tim) might you use to signify dealing one hit point of damage to a target?
Q3: Analogies: Rosalind is to Ganymede as Éowyn is to Dernhelm as Fa Mulan is to whom?
Q4: What fictional wanderer, introduced in a 1933 book often read by Captain Kangaroo, lives with “his mother and his father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins”?
Q5: What networking utility, first written for 4.2a BSD UNIX in 1983, sends echo request packets and reports on echo replies?
* Samuel Beckett, “Ping.”
As we sign up for the next pub quiz, we might spare a thought for John Baskerville, English printer and typefounder; he died on this date in 1775. Among Baskerville’s publications in the British Museum’s collection are Aesop’s Fables (1761), the Bible (1763), and the works of Horace (1770). And as for his fonts, Baskerville’s creations (including the famous “Baskerville”) were so successful that his competitors resorted to claims that they damaged the eyes.
The first issue of National Geographic magazine, published in October 1888, was vastly different to the magazine we know today. It contained no photographs or illustrations. The cover was brown, with just the title and symbol of the National Geographic Society.
The following year, the magazine published a four-color foldout map, the first step towards the all-color charts and diagrams that have since become synonymous with National Geographic. “We’re in the business of using art to explain,” Kaitlin Yarnall, Deputy Creative Director, explains…
Since then, National Geographic has become renowned for the infographics it uses to break down complex information…
More background– and beautiful examples– at “See the Most Captivating Infographics of the Last Century.”
* … and its variants: a supposed Chinese (or Japanese) proverb, actually coined by Frank Bernard in the early 20th century
As we show instead of tell, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell; he was born on this date in 1925. A British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter, most of his work was rooted in his life as an animal collector and enthusiast… though he is probably most widely known for his autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods... which have been made into television and radio mini-series many times, most recently as ITV’s/PBS’s The Durrells.
The less competent an individual is at a specific task, the more likely they are to over-estimate their ability at that task.
Sure, ignorance is bliss. But being convinced you’re an expert at something, even though actually you’re ignorant — DAYUM — that’s the the best thing ever. People with poor abilities at some task can sometimes mistakenly believe that they are much more skilled at the task then they actually are. Examples of this are everywhere, from people who have never played a sport before, but just know they’ll be great at it, to people who’ve had one semester of french back in high school, but have no doubt that when the plane lands in Paris they’ll be able to talk like a native…
Every once in a while — very rarely in the grand scheme of things — someone figures out how a tiny, tiny bit of the universe works. Through this newsletter I celebrate these discoveries, and the people they’re named after.
These tiny discoveries are known by many terms — laws, rules, constants, principles, theorems, effects. And they pop up in all areas of human endeavors — science of course, but also law and politics, arts and entertainment, popular culture and everyday life. Hubble’s Law, Dunbar’s Number, the Barbara Streisand Effect, Murphy’s Law — they’re all fair game. The only rules are:
1) the law must be named for someone, and
2) the law must shine a tiny bit of light onto one tiny bit of how the universe operates.
Browse the archive (and sign up) here.
* Thomas Pynchon
As we revel in rules, we might spare a thought for Gregor Johann Mendel; he died on this date in 1884. After a profoundly-unpromising start, Mendel became a scientist, Augustinian friar, and abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, Moravia (today’s Czech Republic). A botanist and plant experimenter, he was the first to lay the mathematical foundation of the science of genetics (of which he is now consider the “Father”). Over the period 1856-63, Mendel grew and analyzed over 28,000 pea plants. He carefully studied for each their height, pod shape, pod color, flower position, seed color, seed shape and flower color– and from those observations derived two very important generalizations, known today as the Laws of Heredity.
* Iris Murdoch
As we try transliteration, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Umberto Eco; he was born on this date in 1932. Most widely known as a novelist (primarily for his international best seller The Name of the Rose), Eco was also a literary critic, philosopher, and university professor highly-regarded in academic circles for his contributions to semiology.
An occasional translator, Eco once remarked, “translation is the art of failure.”
Da Vinci would carry around a notebook, where he would write and draw anything that moved him. “It is useful,” Leonardo once wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider.” Buried in one of these books, dating back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list…
Check it out (if not off) at “Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490) Is Much Cooler Than Yours.”
* Umberto Eco,
As we prioritize prioritization, we might spare a thought for Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger; he died on this date in 1961. A physicist best remembered in his field for his contributions to the development of quantum mechanics (e.g., the Schrödinger equation), and more generally for his “Schrödinger’s cat“ thought experiment– a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics– he also wrote on philosophy and theoretical biology. Indeed, both James Watson, and independently, Francis Crick, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, credited Schrödinger’s What is Life? (1944), with its theoretical description of how the storage of genetic information might work, as an inspiration.
It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, “Who are we?”
– from Science and Humanism, 1951
“I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.”*…
* Mae West
As we peel ’em, we might spare a thought for Josiah Wedgwood; he died on this date in 1795. An English potter and businessman (he founded the Wedgwood company), he is credited, via his technique of “division of labor,” with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery– and by his example, much of British manufacturing.
Wedgwood was a member of the Lunar Society, the Royal Society, and was an ardent abolitionist. His daughter, Susannah, was the mother of Charles Darwin.