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Posts Tagged ‘light

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”*…


A New Orleans levee, lit from above [source]

400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day…

* Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we remove our sunglasses, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum





Written by LW

June 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Let there be light”*…


From oil lamps to LEDs– the price of light… a larger, interactive version here.

From Max Roser‘s always-illuminating Our World in Data.  The underlying research (and methodology) here (pdf).

* Genesis 1:3


As we switch it on, we might spare a thought for Edward Hibberd Johnson; he died on this date in 1917.  Best remembered as a business associate of Thomas Edison (Johnson was president of Edison Electric Illuminating Co., the forerunner of Con Ed, and helped found General Electric), he was an inventor in his own right.  Johnson patented a number of lighting devices, especially streetlights, but is surely best remembered as the inventor/creator of the first electric Christmas tree lights– 80 walnut-sized red, white, and blue bulbs strung together–  which he displayed in the front window of his New York City home in 1882.



Written by LW

September 9, 2016 at 1:01 am

“You cannot NOT have a user experience”*…


Q: I’ve heard people use UI and UX interchangeably. I thought I knew the difference, but now I’m confused. Can you please clarify this once and for all? 

Of course I can. And I can do it using the Presto Hot Dogger. Obviously.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I talked my mom into buying us a hot dog cooking machine. Don’t laugh. This was the 70s, when instant coffee was considered a miracle. The way the Hot Dogger worked was simple. There was a tray with two rows of spikes on either side that slid into a heating element. You impaled the hot dog into the corresponding spike on each side, completing the electrical circuit, and this “cooked” the hot dog. Cooking is a strong word here, as the hot dogs were actually being electrocuted. (Hot dogs contain an insane amount of metal, by the way.) We were thrilled to make our hot dogs this way.

So, what I just described — the spikes, the heating element, the electrocuting — that’s the user interface. Or UI, for short. And I’m sure that the good folks at Presto tested that user interface many times over until they had it just right. I’m sure they tested the proper width of the tray to fit the majority of hot dogs and wieners being made in the USA at the time. I’m sure they tested the force needed to close the tray, maybe even with a robot arm! They probably even tested the visibility of the smoky transparent plastic that allowed you to see your hot dogs being electrocuted, and how much of it you’d want to see.

Now here’s the thing. When you give three boys an appliance that electrocutes meat in an era before their boredom could be diffused with video games and cable, it immediately becomes the most interesting thing in the house. And they start wanting to have experiences. The hunger to electrocute things far outlasted the hunger for hot dogs. And it wasn’t long before we started looking for other things that fit in the Hot Dogger™.

Here’s an incomplete list of items we tried:

  • bananas (not enough metal)
  • chicken drumsticks (worked, albeit slowly)
  • Steak-umm (turned to liquid)
  • forks (sparks, small fire)
  • a condom we found on the street (the smell lasted for weeks)
  • aluminum foil (yep. Aluminum bridges solved our Steak-umm problem. )

We were having user experiences…

Learn more (including why trash bins are exactly 25 feet from hot dog stands at Disneyland) from Mike Monteiro, Design Director at Mule Design, in “How 70s appliances can explain the difference between UX and UI.”

* Lou Carbone


As we put our appliances through their paces, we might spare a thought for an inventor and designer of an earlier period, Garrett Morgan; he died on this date in 1963.  He patented a traffic signal (which he sold to GE for commercial exploitation).  He also developed (among many other inventions) the gas mask, which he used to rescue miners who were trapped underground in a noxious mine in 1914– though soon after, he was asked to produce gas masks for the US Army.  It was based in part on his 1912 creation, a safety hood and smoke protector for firefighters.



Written by LW

August 27, 2015 at 1:01 am

The Edge of Light…

A complement to yesterday’s missive on urbanization:  photographer Adam Ryder‘s series, “The Edge of Light“…

More of this series– and other mesmerizing work– on Adam’s site.

As we meditate on moving boundaries, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that Agatha Christie was reported in London newspapers to have said “An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have: the older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”  (In fact, the remark was attributed to her by her second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan.  Christie later insisted that she was she was quoting “a witty wife.”)


Written by LW

March 9, 2012 at 1:01 am

Pictures worth a million words…

In his great opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium published shortly before his death in 1543, Copernicus takes 405 pages of words, numbers and equations to explain his heliocentric theory. But it is the diagram that he draws at the beginning of the book that captures in a simple image his revolutionary new idea: it is the Sun that is at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth.

A diagram has the power to create a whole new visual language to navigate a scientific idea. Isaac Newton’s optics diagrams [Opticks, 1704] for example transform light into geometry. By representing light as lines, Newton is able to use mathematics and geometry to predict the behaviour of light. It was a revolutionary idea.

Mathematicians had been struggling with the idea of the square root of minus one. There seemed to be no number on the number line whose square was negative. Experts knew that if such a number existed it would transform their subject. But where was this number? It was a picture drawn independently by three mathematicians at the beginning of the 19th Century that brought these numbers to life. Called the Argand diagram after one of its creators, this picture… was a potent tool in manipulating these new numbers [Imaginary Numbers] since the geometry of the diagram reflected the underlying algebra of the numbers they depicted.

Although better known for her contributions to nursing, Florence Nightingale’s greatest achievements were mathematical. She was the first to use the idea of a pie chart to represent data.  Nightingale’s diagrams were designed to highlight deaths in the Crimea. She had discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She wanted to persuade government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals. She realised though that just looking at the numbers was unlikely to impress ministers. But once those numbers were translated into a picture – her “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East” – the message could not be ignored.

Read more (and find links to enlarged versions of the images above) at BBC.com, in “Diagrams that Changed the World,” a teaser for new BBC TV series, Marcus du Sautoy’s six-part The Beauty of Diagrams (on air now, and available via iPlayer to readers in the U.K… and readers with VPNs that can terminate in the U.K.)

As we marvel at the power of pictures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that eight planets in our Solar System lined up from West to East– beginning with Pluto, followed by Mercury, Mars, Venus, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and Jupiter, with a crescent moon alongside– in a rare alignment visible from Earth.  Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn were visible to the naked eye; the small blue dots that are Uranus and Neptune, with binoculars.  Pluto was visible only by telescope (but has subsequently been demoted from “planet” anyway…). The planets also aligned in May 2000, but too close to the sun to be visible from Earth.

Readers who missed it have a long wait for the reprise: it will be at least another 100 years before so many planets will be so close and so visible.


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