history and science

Beets me! Less than three hundred years ago in rural Idaho a group of explorers discovered a flock of wild clydsdales living on a radish farm after the owners had mysteriously disappeared. Several days later never-before-seen plants started sprouting from the large mounds of horse feces that later were shown to contain a bitter root, which the new owners of the farm named horseradishes.

September 15

This one is technically not yet history, because at the time of posting, the little craft has about half an hour left to go.  That said, let’s proceed.

In 2017, NASA’s Cassini space probe ended its twenty-year mission at Saturn.  After a nearly-seven-year-long journey there, it orbited the ringed planet for 13 years and just over two months, gathering copious amounts of information about the planet, said rings, and many of its moons.  It landed an ESA probe called Huygens on Titan, the first-ever soft landing in the outer Solar System.  It discovered lakes, seas, and rivers of methane on Titan, geysers of water erupting from Enceladus (and passed within 50 miles of that moon’s surface), and found gigantic, raging hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles.  

And the images it returned are beautiful enough to make you weep.

On this day in 2017, with the fuel for Cassini’s directional thrusters running low, the probe was de-orbited into the Saturnian atmosphere to prevent any possibility of any contamination of possible biotic environments on Titan or Enceladus.  The remaining thruster fuel was used to keep the radio dish pointed towards Earth so the probe could transmit information about the upper atmosphere of Saturn while it was burning up due to atmospheric friction.

This is us at our best.  We spent no small amount of money on a nuclear-powered robot, launched it into space, sent it a billion miles away, and worked with it for two decades just to learn about another planet.  And when the repeatedly-extended missions were through, we made the little craft sacrifice itself like a samurai, performing its duty as long as it could while it became a shooting star in the Saturnian sky.

Rhea occulting Saturn

Water geysers on Enceladus

Strange Iapetus

Look at this gorgeousness

A gigantic motherfucking storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere


This image is from the surface of a moon of a planet at least 746 million miles away.  Sweet lord


Vertical structures in the rings.  Holy shit

Titan and Dione occulting Saturn, rings visible

Little Daphnis making gravitational ripples in the rings

That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s all of us that ever lived.

Saturn, backlit

A polar vortex on the gas giant

Icy Enceladus

(All images from NASA/JPL)

Katherine Johnson (b. 1918) is a physicist and mathematician who has made crucial contributions to several NASA missions, assuring their success with her highly accurate calculations. She worked with NASA for several decades, and helped advance the rights of both African-Americans and women.

She initially worked as a human computer, and later as an aerospace technologist. She calculated trajectories for missions such as the 1961 Mercury mission or the 1969 Apollo 11 flight. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

The Genius of Marie Curie

Growing up in Warsaw in Russian-occupied Poland, the young Marie Curie, originally named Maria Sklodowska, was a brilliant student, but she faced some challenging barriers. As a woman, she was barred from pursuing higher education, so in an act of defiance, Marie enrolled in the Floating University, a secret institution that provided clandestine education to Polish youth. By saving money and working as a governess and tutor, she eventually was able to move to Paris to study at the reputed Sorbonne. here, Marie earned both a physics and mathematics degree surviving largely on bread and tea, and sometimes fainting from near starvation. 

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium spontaneously emitted a mysterious X-ray-like radiation that could interact with photographic film. Curie soon found that the element thorium emitted similar radiation. Most importantly, the strength of the radiation depended solely on the element’s quantity, and was not affected by physical or chemical changes. This led her to conclude that radiation was coming from something fundamental within the atoms of each element. The idea was radical and helped to disprove the long-standing model of atoms as indivisible objects. Next, by focusing on a super radioactive ore called pitchblende, the Curies realized that uranium alone couldn’t be creating all the radiation. So, were there other radioactive elements that might be responsible?

In 1898, they reported two new elements, polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, and radium, the Latin word for ray. They also coined the term radioactivity along the way. By 1902, the Curies had extracted a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride salt from several tons of pitchblende, an incredible feat at the time. Later that year, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics, but Marie was overlooked. Pierre took a stand in support of his wife’s well-earned recognition. And so both of the Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize, making Marie Curie the first female Nobel Laureate.

In 1911, she won yet another Nobel, this time in chemistry for her earlier discovery of radium and polonium, and her extraction and analysis of pure radium and its compounds. This made her the first, and to this date, only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Professor Curie put her discoveries to work, changing the landscape of medical research and treatments. She opened mobile radiology units during World War I, and investigated radiation’s effects on tumors.

However, these benefits to humanity may have come at a high personal cost. Curie died in 1934 of a bone marrow disease, which many today think was caused by her radiation exposure. Marie Curie’s revolutionary research laid the groundwork for our understanding of physics and chemistry, blazing trails in oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics, to name a few. For good or ill, her discoveries in radiation launched a new era, unearthing some of science’s greatest secrets.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The genius of Marie Curie - Shohini Ghose

Animation by Anna Nowakowska

A 3,700 year old Babylonian tablet rewrites the history of maths
“The Babylonians unique approach to arithmetic and geometry means this is not only the world’s oldest trigonometric table, it’s also the only completely accurate trigonometric table on record,” he said.

The Ancient Babylonians knew about a form of trigonometry more advanced than the modern-day version – about 1,000 years before its supposed invention by the Ancient Greeks, academics in Australia say.

The astonishing claim is based on a 3,700-year-old clay tablet inscribed with a table of numbers.

Known as Plimpton 322, it is already known to contain evidence that the Babylonians knew Pythagoras’ famous equation for right-angled triangles, long before the Greek philosopher gave his name to it.

And researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have claimed it also shows the Babylonians developed a highly sophisticated form of trigonometry – the system of maths used to describe angles that has tortured generations of school pupils with sine, cosine and tangent.

Continue Reading.

Here’s an alternate history setting I haven’t seen before - General Sherman’s orders weren’t rescinded and every freed family received 40 acres and a mule carved from the lands of rebel slave holders.  Southern blacks were never bound to the repressive sharecropping system, and instead were as able to economically progress as the whites who benefited from the homestead act.  This facilitates an alternate present that is far more socially and scientifically advanced as the backdrop for science fiction stories - and makes a much stronger and more cutting statement about institutional racism than “man, things would sure be worse if the Confederacy and 19th century style slavery still existed!”.

Hell - it liberates you to present a world where the United States can be unambiguous good-guys, but rather than white washing reality, it is a criticism of the reality by juxtaposition!

Life Before The Internet

Many people born after 1990 don’t remember a world before Internet. Here are a few things you may not realize about life in those days:

  • Phone numbers had to be looked up in a giant book.
  • Clowns weren’t considered scary. This is just the result of an early meme.
  • There were no llamas. The llama is a result of special global internet-coordinated breeding programs.
  • If you wanted to move something from one computer to another, you had to put it on a disk, which only held 0.2 MB maximum.
  • There were no unique television stations, all TV came through as a single broadcast, and there was no choice of what to watch at any time.
  • Most movies did not have sound. The few that did had to sync up the audio from a record player, and it often went out of sync very quickly, leading to sometimes hilarious results.
  • There were no phone poles, these are exclusive to the internet. The invention of the internet and the subsequent installation of these poles and wires gave birds a new place to rest, allowing them to migrate farther than ever before. Prior to 1990, birds could only migrate a few blocks.
  • Lightning wasn’t deadly, nor did it produce thunder. Only with the air electrified from so much internet did lightning gain deadly strength and become audible from afar. Back in the 80s, playwright Samuel Beckett spoke of lightning as causing a gentle tingling sensation. Many people would stand out in the rain just to feel it.
  • Cars didn’t have wheels. The wheel is a fairly recent invention, which could only come into being with science advanced by the worldwide web. Cars before wheels were odd contraptions which did not move, yet people still spent hours and hours sitting in them, expecting to get somewhere in the hope that one day, the wheel would be invented. Many people still practice sitting motionless in their car for hours and hours, mostly in Los Angeles.
  • We didn’t have snot. Nobody knows if the internet caused us to secrete mucus, but there are no records of it prior to the invention of internet.
Universities are very familiar with bright, qualified school-leavers who arrive and then go into shock on finding that biology or physics isn’t quite what they’ve been taught so far. ‘Yes, but you needed to understand that,’ they are told, 'so that now we can tell you why it isn’t exactly true.’ Discworld teachers know this, and use it to demonstrate why universities are truly storehouses of knowledge: students arrive from school confident that they know very nearly everything, and they leave years later certain that they know practically nothing. Where did the knowledge go in the meantime? Into the university, of course, where it is carefully dried and stored.
—  Terry Pratchett - The Science Of Discworld

“If there is energy within the substance it can only come from without. This truth was so manifest to me that I expressed it in the following axiom: ‘There is no energy in matter except that absorbed from the medium…’ If all energy is supplied to matter from without then this all important function must be performed by the medium.”

“When radio-active rays were discovered their investigators believed them to be due to liberation of atomic energy in the form of waves. This being impossible in the light of the preceding I concluded that they were produced by some external disturbance and composed of electrified particles. My theory was not seriously taken although it appeared simple and plausible. Suppose that bullets are fired against a wall. Where a missile strikes the material is crushed and spatters in all directions radial from the place of impact. In this example it is perfectly clear that the energy of the flying pieces can only be derived from that of the bullets. But in manifestation of radio-activity no such proof could be advanced and it was, therefore, of the first importance to demonstrate experimentally the existence of this miraculous disturbance in the medium. I was rewarded in these efforts with quick success largely because of the efficient method I adopted which consisted in deriving from a great mass of air, ionized by the disturbance, a current, storing its energy in a condenser and discharging the same through an indicating device. This plan did away with the limitations and incertitude of the electroscope first employed and was described by me in articles and patents from 1900 to 1905. It was logical to expect, judging from the behavior of known radiations, that the chief source of the new rays would be the sun, but this supposition was contradicted by observations and theoretical considerations which disclosed some surprising facts in this connection.

“Light and heat rays are absorbed in their passage through a medium in a certain proportion to its density. The ether, although the most tenuous of all substances, is no exception to this rule.  Its density has been first estimated by Lord Kelvin and conformably to his finding a column of one square centimeter cross section and of a length such that light, traveling at a rate of three hundred thousands kilometers per second, would require one year to traverse it, should weigh 4.8 grams. This is just about the weight of a prism of ordinary glass of the same cross section and two centimeters length which, therefore, may be assumed as the equivalent of the ether column in absorption. A column of the ether one thousand times longer would thus absorb as much light as twenty meters of glass.  However, there are suns at distances of many thousands of light years and it is evident that virtually no light from them can reach the earth. But if these suns emit rays immensely more penetrative than those of light they will be slightly dimmed and so the aggregate amount of radiations pouring upon the earth from all sides will be overwhelmingly greater than that supplied to it by our luminary. If light and heat rays would be as penetrative as the cosmic, so fierce would be the perpetual glare and so scorching the heat that life on this and other planets could not exist.

“Rays in every respect similar to the cosmic are produced by my vacuum tubes when operated at pressures of ten millions of volts or more, but even if it were not confirmed by experiment, the theory I advanced in 1897 would afford the simplest and most probable explanation of the phenomena. Is not the universe with its infinite and impenetrable boundary a perfect vacuum tube of dimensions and power inconceivable? Are not its fiery suns electrodes at temperatures far beyond any we can apply in the puny and crude contrivances of our making? Is it not a fact that the suns and stars are under immense electrical pressures transcending any that man can ever produce and is this not equally true of the vacuum in celestial space? Finally, can there be any doubt that cosmic dust and meteoric matter present an infinitude of targets acting as reflectors and transformers of energy? If under ideal working conditions, and with apparatus on a scale beyond the grasp of the human mind, rays of surpassing intensity and penetrative power would not be generated, then, indeed, nature has made an unique exception to its laws.

"It has been suggested that the cosmic rays are electrons or that they are the result of creation of new matter in the interstellar deserts. These views are too fantastic to be even for a moment seriously considered. They are natural outcroppings of this age of deep but unrational thinking, of impossible theories, the latest of which might, perhaps, deal with the curvature of time. What this world of ours would be if time were curved…“

–Nikola Tesla

“The Eternal Source of Energy of the Universe, Origin and Intensity of Cosmic Rays.” October 13, 1932.
How Weather Created The Vikings

You may have heard of Krakatoa, a giant volcanic explosion which caused the year without a summer. But did you know something equally giant happened in 536 CE? A vast cloud of dust darkened the sky, likely caused by a combination of cataclysms such as comets or meteorites, plus at least one volcanic eruption. Whatever happened caused lower summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere for the next fourteen years!

The added cold and darkness devastated Scandanavia. In the Uppland region, for instance, we know nearly 75% of villages were abandoned during this period. And the legend of Ragnarok may have been inspired, or embellished, during this period; the end of the world is supposed to start with Fimbulwinter, a deadly time when the sun turns black and the weather bitter and changeable – just like the harsh years after 536 CE. 

Scholars note that when Scandanavian society eventually rebounded, their culture was much more war-centered, with men and women alike celebrating the virtues of fearlessness, aggression, and physical prowess. Local rulers were constantly seizing and defending abandoned territory, fighting for good farmland and good fishing territory. Graves are suddenly filled with weapons and shields. A militarized society arose, which would one day be known and feared across the continent.


Camel Spiders:
Neither Camels, nor Spiders

CAMEL SPIDERS ARE SO. NEAT. Also somewhat terrifying. 

This is me ^ reacting to Dr. Cushing explaining their, uh… dramatic reproductive behaviors. Apparently my expression is so exaggerated that an anatomy instructor wants to use a gif of it in a class to demonstrate the function of a facial muscle 

and just look at this

I mean you can’t say camel spiders aren’t inspiring. 

Watch the other two videos we made in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science!