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Posts Tagged ‘Newton

“Librarians are the secret masters of the world”*…


Interior view of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos scientific library

If library work was among the most tedious [at Los Alamos], the award for the most unenviable job likely belonged to its head librarian: Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist who at one point interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright for The Boston Globe.

In 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Serber to spearhead the project in part because of her lack of librarian experience. He wanted someone who would be willing to bend the rules of cataloguing.

Her appointment was a victory for the women on the Hill. Though women were integral to the success of the Manhattan Project—scientists like Leona Woods and Mary Lucy Miller played central roles in the creation of the bomb—none occupied leadership positions.

In this respect, Serber stood alone. As the head of the scientific library, she became the Manhattan Project’s de facto keeper of secrets, a position that soon saw her targeted for an FBI probe—and almost ended in her being fired from the project…

The remarkable true tale of the woman who dodged accusations of communism, and made the atomic bomb possible: “The Librarian Who Guarded the Manhattan Project’s Secrets.”

* Spider Robinson


As we check it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy),  was published.  Often referred to as simply the Principia, the three-volume work outlines Newton’s laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics; Newton’s law of universal gravitation; and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler first obtained empirically).  This first edition was written in Latin, the universal language of scholarship at the time; an English edition was published in 1728.  It remains one of the most important works in the history of science.

Title page of the first edition



Written by LW

July 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin”*…


A Ferris wheel of chipmunks, formerly part of the Dead Pals of Sam Sanfillippo


Last October, Atlas Obscura co-presented a Rogue Taxidermy Fair with its fellow Brooklyn-based (and former Roughly Daily subject) Morbid Anatomy in celebration of a new book on “rogue taxidermy.”

The Crucified Sheep


Read more about– and see more of– the Fair at “The Crucified Sheep, Tattooed Frogs, and Crocheted Skeletons of a Rogue Taxidermy Fair in Brooklyn,” and revisit (R)Ds earlier look at rogue taxidermy here.

* Mark Twain


As we strike a pose, we might recall that it was on this date in 1697 that Isaac Newton received and solved Jean Bernoulli’s brachistochrone problem.  The Swiss mathematician Bernoulli had challenged his colleagues to solve it within six months.  Newton not only solved the problem before going to bed that same night, but in doing so, invented a new branch of mathematics called the calculus of variations.  He had resolved the issue of specifying the curve connecting two points displayed from each other laterally, along which a body, acted upon only by gravity, would fall in the shortest time.  Newton, age 55, sent the solution to be published, at his request, anonymously.  But the brilliant originality of the work betrayed his identity, for when Bernoulli saw the solution he commented, “We recognize the lion by his claw.”



Written by LW

January 26, 2015 at 1:01 am

“An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it”*…


“Adam and Eve in Paradise: (c. 1527), Mabuse + “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick Lamar

Banksy has lamented (in Wall and Piece) that…

Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions, and buy records by the billions. ‘We the people’ affect the making and quality of most of our culture, but not our art…. The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires…

Fly Art is taking Art back:

Fly Art was a project born out of boredom, frustration, and the internet.

Inspired by a lot of other projects with similar themes like Swoosh Art and Carter Family Portraits, Fly Art is the marriage of two of the finer things in life: Hip hop and art.

– Gisella and Toni


“The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet” (1823), Francisco Hayez + “All of The Lights,” Kanye West ft. Rihanna, Kid Cudi with vocals by Fergie, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Tony Williams, Alicia Keys, La Roux, The Dream, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis.

More marvelous mash-ups at Fly Art.

[TotH to @mattiekahn]

* Paul Valery


As we hum along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that (not yet Sir) Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (AKA “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, AKA the Principia).  In three volumes Newton laid out his laws of motion (his foundation of classical mechanics), his theory of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler had obtained empirically).

As G.E. Smith wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Viewed retrospectively, no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia… no one could deny that [out of the Principia] a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.

Title page of Principia, first edition


Written by LW

July 5, 2014 at 1:01 am

Adventures in Cosmology: Starting out Simply…

Why was entropy so low at the Big Bang? (source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Back in 2010, SUNY-Buffalo physics professor Dejan Stojkovic and colleagues made a simple– a radically simple– suggestion:  that the early universe — which exploded from a single point and was very, very small at first — was one-dimensional (like a straight line) before expanding to include two dimensions (like a plane) and then three (like the world in which we live today).

The core idea is that the dimensionality of space depends on the size of the space observed, with smaller spaces associated with fewer dimensions. That means that a fourth dimension will open up — if it hasn’t already — as the universe continues to expand.  (Interesting corollary: space has fewer dimensions at very high energies of the kind associated with the early, post-big bang universe.)

Stojkovic’s notion is challenging; but at the same time, it would help address a number of fundamental problems with the standard model of particle physics, from the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity to the mystery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

But is it “true”?  There’s no way to know as yet.  But Stojkovic and his colleagues have devised a test using the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a planned international gravitational observatory, that could shed some definitive light on the question in just a few years.

Read the whole story in Science Daily, and read Stojkovic’s proposal for experimental proof in Physical Review Letters.

As we glance around for evidence of that fourth dimension, we might bid an indeterminate farewell to Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Laureate whose work on dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility led to the identification of self-organizing systems, and is seen by many as a bridge between the natural and social sciences.  He died at the Hospital Erasme in Brussels on this date in 2003.

Prigogine’s 1997 book, The End of Certainty, summarized his departure from the determinist thinking of Newton, Einstein, and Schrödinger in arguing for “the arrow of time”– and “complexity,” the ineluctable reality of irreversibility and instability.  “Unstable systems” like weather and biological life, he suggested, cannot be explained with standard deterministic models.  Rather, given their to sensitivity to initial conditions, unstable systems can only be explained statistically, probabilistically.

source: University of Texas

A Matter of Some Gravity…


I’ve been noticing gravity since I was very young.
-Cameron Diaz

Isaac Newton first proposed a universal law of gravitation, where every massive body in the universe was attracted to every other one. This simple law proved extremely powerful, able to explain the orbits of planets and the reason the apocryphal apple fell on his head. However, Newton was never able to explain why gravity worked or what exactly it was. Two hundred plus years later, Albert Einstein was able to offer a more complete description of gravity—one where Newton’s laws are a limited case. According to Einstein, gravity was due to the warpage of spacetime by mass and energy; all objects followed straight paths, just on curved spaces.

With the advent of quantum theory over the past 100 years, scientists have been able to develop an elegant mathematical framework capable of uniting three of the four fundamental forces that are thought to exist in the universe. The fourth, gravity, still remains the fly in the ointment, and has resisted unification to this point. Early last year, Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde published a manuscript to the arXiv that purports to explain why science cannot reconcile all four fundamental forces. According to him, it is simple: “gravity doesn’t exist.”

Read the full story (SPOILER ALERT: it relates to Leonard Susskind‘s “holographic principle,” suggesting in effect that gravity isn’t a fundamental force, but an “entropic” result of information imbalances between the bodies/regions in question) in Ars Technica (recapping Physical Review D, 2011. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.83.021502).

As we sit more confidently beneath apple trees, we might wish a polymathic Happy Birthday to the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer– the archetypical Renaissance Man– Leonardo da Vinci; he was born on this date in 1452.

Self-portrait in Red Chalk (source)

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.


Adventures in the Counterintuitive…

Your correspondent is headed away for a week or so, ranging more then ten times zones from home– the current limit to continuous timely posting of (R)D…  So, while regular service will resume on-or-around the 20th, a little something to keep one occupied:


Readers will recall that, on the occasion of an earlier hiatus, your correspondent wheeled out “the Monty Hall Problem” (c.f., “Riddle Me This” and “Birdbrains“).  This time, with thanks to Prof. Stan Wagon at Macalester College:

Monty Hall Takes a Vacation

Alice and Bob face three doors marked 1, 2, 3. Behind the doors are placed, randomly, a car, a key, and a goat. The couple wins the car if Bob finds the car and Alice finds the key.

First Bob (with Alice removed from the scene) will open a door; if the car is not behind it he can open a second door. If he fails to find the car, they lose. If he does find the car, then all doors are closed and Alice gets to open a door in the hope of finding the key and, if not, trying again with a second door.

Alice and Bob do not communicate except to make a plan beforehand. What is their best strategy?

Source: A. S. Landsberg (Physics, Claremont Colleges, California), Letters, Spring 2009 issue of The Mathematical Intelligencer.

The answer is here— and more nifty puzzles, here.

As we craft our own strategies, we might solve a memorial problem for Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she died on this date in 1749.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held. Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface. The work was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia


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