World Braille Day, celebrating communication via raised dots

January 4th is World Braille Day, a day to celebrate the code of tiny elevated dots that has been instrumental in opening up worlds of information and opportunity to millions of people around the world suffering from blindness or low vision. The date coincides with the commemoration of the birthday of Louis Braille (4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852), the Frenchman credited with the invention of the braille code language over the years 1821 – 1837.

Braille - opening up new worlds of communication through touch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Braille – opening up new worlds of communication through touch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Louis Braille, while not born blind, was blinded through an accident when he was only 3 years old. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in France, one of the first schools in the world for blind children. Here he learned to read using a system developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy, who had books specially printed using a complex wet-printing process, to create raised imprints of the Latin letters in the text. While this was useful, it was very difficult to accurately read the letters by touch, and the complexity of the printing process made it impossible for an individual to use for writing. Braille yearned to read and write as well as any able person, despite his disability, and he knew that effective communication was critical if he was to function fully in a normal world. He is famously quoted as saying: “We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

This passion lead him to devise a set of symbols, consisting of raised dots on paper, that could be felt by hand and read as a sighted person would read printed letters and words on a page. The simplicity of the raised dot system meant that a blind person could also generate a page with the code using simple tools, thus effectively enabling him to write. The system was an improvement on an earlier code system, known as ‘night writing’, developed for military use by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army.

It is a testament to his intelligence, drive and tenacity that Braille developed most of the code that was to become the basis of the braille language by 1824, when he was a mere 15 years of age. His initial system, published in 1829, contained both dots and dashes, but he replaced this with an updated, simplified edition using only dots, released in 1837.

Braille’s system of communication took some time to gain widespread adoption. First adopted at the school where he was educated, its popularity grew throughout France, and from there it slowly gained recognition in other countries. Almost 2 centuries after its invention, braille remains a critical tool for learning and communication among the visually impaired. Over the years, it has been adapted and expanded for many world languages.

In an incredible twist of fate, the very tool that accidentally blinded Louis Braille at the age of three – an awl – became the tool he used used to write his unique braille code.

Celebrating sound science communication with Scientific American

Today we celebrate a veritable institution in the international popular science communication landscape – the magazine Scientific American today celebrates its incredible 167th birthday, making it the oldest continuously published monthly in the US.

Scientific American – a staple on the news stands and magazine racks of good bookshops around the world.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first issue of the magazine, then a four page weekly newspaper, appeared on this day back in 1845.  It was published by Rufus Porter, a very interesting character who, besides being a magazine publisher, was also a painter, inventor, schoolmaster and editor. In line with Porter’s personal interests, the magazine reported on happenings in the US Patent Office, as well as having popular articles on inventions of the time.

Porter’s interest in the magazine didn’t last long – after 10 months he sold it to Alfred Beach and Orson Munn I (for a whopping $800).  It remained under ownership of Munn & Company, who, in the century between 1846 and 1948, grew it from its humble beginnings to a large and influencial periodical. In the late 40’s it was put up for sale again, and this time the magazine was sold to three partners, Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan, and Donald Miller Jr. They reportedly planned on starting their own new science magazine, but finding that Scientific American was for sale, they opted to rather buy that and work their ideas into the existing title. They made significant changes to the magazine, updating and broadening its appeal. Ownership remained stable from 1948 to 1986, when it was sold to the German Holtzbrinck group, who has owned it since. The current Editor in Chief is Mariette DiChristina – an experienced science journalist and the first woman in the magazine’s history to hold the position.

What has kept the magazine alive and relevant for so many years, is the fact that it has consistently focused on an educated, but not necessarily scientific public, clearly explaining the scientific concepts it reported on and maintaining strong editorial quality control. It has also, since its inception, focused on clear, explanatory visual illustrations to accompany its articles. In its long lifetime, the magazine has published contributions from many famous scientists, including more than 140 Nobel laureates. Albert Einstein contributed an article called “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation” in 1950.

In 1996, the Scientific American website was launched. A mobile site, as well as the Scientific American Blog Network, followed in 2011. For the past 10 years since 2002, the magazine has been hosting its own annual awards, the Scientific American 50, recognising important science and technology contributions of the previous year, across a wide range of categories from agriculture to defence to medicine.

Here’s looking forward to many more years of quality science communication, and a big double-century celebration in 2045!

Keeping yourself in shape on Book Lover’s Day

A few days ago I wrote a bit of an ode to the paperback book. Today, however, we turn our focus from the book itself to those who lovingly cherish all things book-ish – it’s Book Lover’s Day.

The day is, confusingly, also celebrated in early November, but perhaps it’s not that strange – as any true book-lover will tell you, we’ll happily celebrate our love of books every day of the year!

A good book and some quiet time – what more can one ask for?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Whether you love reading, collecting, or simply handling books, this day is for you. Maybe you’ve grudgingly given in to the pressure of the e-book wave, but you’ll know that nothing matches the pure joy of smelling a new, freshly opened book, discovering a well-worn copy of a special book in a second-hand book-dealer, or simply leaning back and enjoying a lazy day with a relaxing read in hand.

And how great is it to discover a wonderful new author you never knew before?

Considering some of the incredible books that have appeared so far this year, there’s certainly no reasons for complaint from the book-lovers among us. Except perhaps a lack of time, or budget, to get around to all the great reads out there.

If you thought reading is only good for the mind, here’s another titbit to further convince you of the advantages of ‘book loverism’: it turns out that readers may be less obese than non-readers! In an article by Fred C. Pampel in the Sociology of Health and Illness journal, entitled “Does reading keep you thin? Leisure activities, cultural tastes, and body weight in comparative perspective”, it is stated that “While sedentary leisure-time activities such as reading, going to movies, attending cultural events, going to sporting events, watching TV, listening to music, and socialising with friends would seem to contribute to excess weight, a perspective focusing on socioeconomic status (SES) differences in cultural tastes suggests the opposite, that some sedentary activities are associated with lower rather than higher body weight.” One of the findings in the article is that people who spend more time reading and generally participating in intellectual activities, and less time shopping and watching TV, have a lower body weight than their peers.

OK, maybe suggesting reading books will help keep you in shape is a bit of a stretch, but if it can help turn one more soul out there on to the joys of reading, why not?

So what books are you enjoying at the moment?