17 March 2008

The Overzealous Dr. Donisthorpe

On this date in 1870, Horace Donisthorpe was born in England.

Donisthorpe is hardly a household name these days, and it is perhaps kinder to his memory that this remains the case, because outside of the very small world of ant researchers (myrmecologists), he is remembered mostly for what he did wrong, and just as this sort of narrow view has led to sad legacies such as "Lamarckism" (more on Lamarck at a later date), one cannot imagine that Donisthorpism would be a positive thing at all.

Horace did his share of good for the study of ants and beetles, and that should not be forgotten. He discovered six new species, including a European rove beetle (Leptacinus intermedius). Unfortunately, he also "discovered" no fewer than twenty-four other species which were not species at all, but redescriptions of already described species. To name and describe a species is a legacy, but to have that description revoked is worse than nothing. It makes the legacy no more than a taxonomic dead end, a complication, a mistake, marked with an asterisk for all the history of science afterward. Twenty four of these is no mean feat, and no small error.

Still, there are worse ways to spend a personal fortune, and he did advance his fields with the discoveries he did make. But at no point can I imagine the term "Donisthorpian" to be accepted gratefully by any scientist I know.

22 February 2008

Artedi gets no holiday

On this date in 1705, Peter Artedi was born.

February 22nd is known by Americans, and anyone who bought their calendar in the United States, as the birthday of the first U.S. President, George Washington. But 27 years earlier, a pioneer in taxonomy and the study of fishes was born.

Like many of the earliest taxonomists, Artedi originally intended to join the clergy. The patience that had to have been necessary for a taxonomist of this period, classifying the world essentially from scratch, seems to have attracted a particular sort. Another of this same ilk was Artedi's friend, the much better known Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus and Artedi worked together at Uppsala University, and became so close that they each signed wills leaving their work, notes and books to each other in the event of their death.

Artedi's part of this contract came due far too soon. At only the age of 30, with a long life and career ahead of him, he drowned in Amsterdam. The father of ichthyology, the man who had begun the real process of grouping and organizing the fishes, was still as much a stranger to the water as any of us. Even at this young age, he left the world two classics in the field, the Bibliotheca Ichthyologica and Philosophia Ichthyologica, which were only manuscripts at the time of his death. Linnaeus, still his devoted friend, made sure they were published and got their proper attention.

19 February 2008

The little station that could

On this date in 1986, Russia launched the Mir space station.

First of all, I'd like to apologize for the long delay in getting back to this blog. It's been a very busy month, and I promise to be more consistent.

Now that the International Space Station is up and running, and Mir is no longer in the news (not to mention the skies), it's easy to forget its importance. Mir was no less than mankind's first long-term step into space, the first time that our voyages beyond our planet became more than just voyages. It was the first place that we as humans truly lived in space.

For just short of ten years, Mir orbited the Earth. That is still the record for longest continuous human habitation in space. It was host to 39 visiting spacecraft, including nine visits by the American space shuttle, and another benchmark of its place in history were these nine times when the old Cold War enemies met in the vacuum of space, not just peacefully, but cooperatively and for mutual benefit. Citizens of twelve nations were at one time or another aboard the station, making it the first international space station, before that name was taken officially.

Mir came down in 2001, the victim not of a failure of engineering, like the U.S. spy satellite on its way to Earth as I write this, but a lack of funding. I for one was sad to see the pictures of its burning end in the sky about the South Pacific. It was like seeing the Spirit of St. Louis destroyed, or Magellan's ship. I will always stand by my idea that Mir was one of the best things humanity ever made, and no matter how many generations of space station come after, no matter how advanced or commonplace they become, this will always be the station that started our life beyond Earth.

29 January 2008

Freezers and Rockets

On this date in 1846, Karol Olszewski was born.

If you've never heard of Olszewski, that's no real surprise. Outside of certain physics and chemistry circles, the Polish scientist is not well remembered, but he made a few very significant additions to our knowledge of the most common elements in our atmosphere, as well as exciting new ways to use those elements.

Olszewski was an alumnus of the Jagiellonian University in his hometown of Krakau, long a distinguished center of learning in Poland. Jagiellonian boasts among its other famous alumni Pope John Paul II, science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, and none other than Nicolaus Copernicus.

Olszewski was an accomplished scientist, but is best known for his work on the creation of liquid oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. He and colleague Zygmunt Wróblewski were the first to achieve stable liquid states for these gases, and their discoveries are still in wide use today. Liquid nitrogen is, by far, the most common product of their work, used in all kinds of freezing applications, from the freezing and transporting of food to the removal of skin lesions and warts. Liquid oxygen was a vital propellant in early rockets, and is still used in some rocket systems, most notably the U.S. space shuttle.

In 1888, just five years after achieving the liquid states, Olszewski's most valued partner, Wróblewski, was killed during their work studying the basic properties of hydrogen. Olszewski bravely continued this work, eventually achieving a stable liquid hydrogen state and setting the new world record for lowest achieved temperature, at -225 C.

He is remembered today with a street named after him in Krakau.

28 January 2008

Remembering the Challenger and Apollo 1 Crews

On this date in 1986, all seven crewmembers of the Challenger space shuttle were killed.

The dates this week all seem strangely connected to the worst episodes in the history of space exploration. With my last post, discussing the loss of the Ranger 3 probe, I wanted to talk about the imperfection of human endeavors, but in that case, I could afford to speak lightly of the probe missing the moon. It was, after all, an unmanned probe, and all that was lost was time, effort, and money. Some have had to give much more to the cause of exploring space.

Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster. Three astronauts died when a fire started and rapidly spread through the spacecraft as it sat on the launchpad. Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were later found to have died of smoke inhalation, but were very heavily burned.

Today marks another sad date in NASA history, and one that, unlike the Apollo 1 fire, I was around to witness. 22 years ago today, the Challenger shuttle exploded seven seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral. I remember watching, back in the days when every school child in America watched every launch. It was still an occasion, and a great place to start a lesson, especially in a science class. This launch was even more heavily watched by American classrooms, because a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was aboard, about to become the first teacher ever to leave the atmosphere of Earth.

McAuliffe's name is still, and will always be inexorably connected to the Challenger explosion. She was the public face of the mission, the poster child for NASA, and when the mission turned so horribly and suddenly tragic, she was still the name in the headlines. I asked a few friends today what they remembered of the explosion, and the only name that any of them could remember was Christa McAuliffe. Six professional astronauts also lost their lives that day, in the performance of their duties and in service of not only our country, but our species. Their names are Greg Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Francis Scobee, and Michael Smith. They all deserve to be remembered.

26 January 2008

Sometimes We Miss

On this date in 1962, the Ranger 3 space probe was launched.

In my opinion, one of the most impressive feats of science and technology, not to mention luck, in recent decades has been the success of the Mars rovers. The small (and relatively cheap) "little data collectors that could" have survived on the surface of Mars for years now, collecting hundreds of times the data originally planned for the mission. In the end, it is estimated that the mission will end because of dust that has settled on the rovers' solar panels. We never even considered they could last long enough for dust to be a problem.

Looking at this sort of success, it's easy to forget just how many times we as humans have tried to reach for the stars and failed. Aside from Apollo 13, which was lucky enough to get its own movie, most failed missions are happily forgotten.

One such mission that we often overlook in the history of space exploration is the Ranger 3. Launched from Cape Canaveral on January 26, 1962, it was meant to fly over the moon taking data on radar reflectivity and surface features, then land and continue to collect more data on the surface itself. It was, in many ways, the direct ancestor of the Mars rovers. Only it missed ... by a lot.

The Ranger 3 was launched by an Atlas-Agena B rocket. The idea was to clear the Earth's atmosphere, make a single course correction, and then ride the forces of gravity for the rest of the trip. It's the sort of calculation that anyone outside of NASA would call then, and many of us would still call today, impossible. But this is the reason you and I don't work for NASA. Their calculations were, in all likelihood, perfectly correct, but a faulty transistor on the rocket threw off its guidance system, and Ranger 3 missed the moon by an impressive 37,000 km on January 28. It then joined the thousands of other small objects orbiting our sun, and it remains out there today, spinning around the same star as us. Maybe someday we'll pick it up, and put it in a museum to remind ourselves that, as smart as we are, we and our technology are not perfect.

18 January 2008


On this date in 1908, Jacob Bronowski was born.

When I choose which events and births and deaths to profile in this blog, it's often difficult to pick the most significant. Often I have to hope that I continue to do this for more than a year, just to get back to some of the interesting stories I had to pass up the first time around. For January 18, there was no question that Bronowski would be my subject.

Jacob Bronowski is best known to most people, myself included, for his excellent work on the BBC's Ascent of Man. Ascent, for those of this generation that have not yet seen it, is a masterwork explaining the various ways that science and technology have shaped human civilization. While Darwin traced humanity's "Descent" back to our evolutionary ancestors, Bronowski chose the opposite, starting at the point we became truly modern humans and noting the way that science fostered our growth and development. It was a brilliant show.

One of the most memorable moments from Ascent was also one of the formative moments in my understanding, limited as it may be, of science. In the eleventh of thirteen episodes, Bronowski visited Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp. He proceeded to make one of the most important points I have ever heard, that certainty is the enemy not only of science, but of humanity. No explanation I could possibly offer would do better than Bronowski's own, and so here, thanks to the glory that is YouTube, is that segment. I encourage you to buy the entire series, and see why it was Carl Sagan' inspiration for making Cosmos.