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The day the microscope got it’s name


On this day, 13 April, back in 1625, Giovanni Faber (also known as Johannes Faber) first suggested the word ‘microscope’ for an enlargement viewing device developed by Galileo Galilei in order to see tiny objects that are too small for the naked eye (Galilei himself called it an ‘occhiolino’ or ‘little eye’). Faber used the term in a letter to Federigo Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx) in Italy, one of the earliest academies of science.

Once the term ‘microscope’ became accepted, this also resulted in the coining of the term ‘microscopy’ for the science of investigating tiny objects through a microscope. The term ‘microscopic’ is used for something that is too small to see unless viewed through a microscope.

Microscopes - impossible to imagine science without them. (© All Rights Reserved)
Microscopes – impossible to imagine science without them.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The microscope is another of those devices that is synonymous with science – it is impossible to imagine a scientific lab, and science in general, without microscopes. From the first optical microscopes (still in use), further developments and technological innovations led to the development of more powerful microscopes including the electron microscope (using electrons rather than light to generate an image) and scanning probe microscopes such as the atomic force microscope (AFM).

The AFM is an extremely high resolution device that can achieve a resolution of the order of fractions of a nanometer. The increased resolution achieved by this device opened up amazing new research possibilities in the nanosciences. To acknowledge this, the developers of the AFM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Research, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.

While only a very select few of us will ever have the opportunity to see one of these incredible pieces of scientific equipment, let alone experience using it, I am sure many out there remember the magical world that opened up when you got your first hobby microscope. I certainly remember the wonder of first getting to use a little microscope handed down to me by my dad – it was old and worn and not fancy at all, but man, was it amazing to look at anything and everything, from a fly’s wing to a drop of blood.

Did you have a microscope when you grew up?

The Internet of Things and the future of data capturing

Today, 9 April 2013, is Internet of Things Day.

The Internet of Things? Yep, I had no idea what it was either, until I did a bit of searching and reading on the subject. It is a rather complex concept, first introduced during a talk in 1999 by British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton. 10 years later in 2009, Ashton wrote a note in RFID Journal explaining in more detail “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing”, as he called it.

The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.(© All Rights Reserved)
The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Basically, his idea is that the vast majority of the information contained in the Internet, as we know it, has been captured and created by human beings, “by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code”. People, however, have limited time, and are in many circumstances not that good (in terms of attention, accuracy etc) at capturing data anyway. By getting computers and other machines. without human intervention, to gather and capture information about ‘things’, we would gain access to unthinkably vast sets of information. This will allow us to track and count everything – we will know the status of things, when they need to be replaced, repaired or recalled; whether they’re fresh or past their useful date.

Ashton’s vision is to “empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data.”

Various alternative definitions have been suggested for the Internet of Things (IoT), but as I understand it, in a nutshell, it is a connected network of computers and other smart devices measuring and capturing information about any number of ‘things’ out there. The data collected by this IoT is vast and powerful, and to a large extent still untapped. Closely related concepts include ‘ambient intelligence’ and ‘ubiquitous computing’.

The range of applications of the IoT is massive, including waste management, intelligent shopping, emergency response, home automation and urban planning, to name a few.

Internet of Things Day exists to create increased awareness about the concept, and how it may impact on life as we know it. While I am pretty sure my understanding is still on the dangerous side of rudimentary, I have to admit I find it exciting, scary and just plain daunting in more or less equal measures.

So here’s to an interesting and exciting Internet of Things Day to you and all the machines and devices around you…

About aerosols, spray dispensers and atomisers

It’s 8 April, and today we commemorate the day way, way back in 1862, the American John D Lynde received a US patent for the first aerosol dispenser, described in the patent as an “improved bottle for aerated liquids”. While the concept dates back as far as 1790, it appears this was the first time it was patented.

The content of an aerosol dispenser, released as a fine mist.(© All Rights Reserved)
The content of an aerosol dispenser, released as a fine mist.
(© All Rights Reserved)

According to the The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, an aerosol dispenser, also known as a spray dispenser when dispensing larger particles, is basically a “device designed to produce a fine spray of liquid or solid particles that can be suspended in a gas such as the atmosphere.” The dispenser is often a pressurised container that holds the substance to be dispersed together with a propellant. It has a valve release mechanism – when the valve is opened, the propellant forces the substance through a small hole, and it is distributed as a fine mist spray. Various propellants have been used over the years, with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) being a common choice until it was banned in 1989 through the Montreal Protocol because of its detrimental effect on the earth’s ozone layer. Newer, less destructive propellants include propane, butane and other volatile hydrocarbons. The downside of these is that they are flammable. Spray dispensers containing foodstuffs (cooking spray, whipped cream etc) often use nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide as propellant, while medical aerosols such as asthma inhalers use hydrofluoroalkanes.

An even less harmful form of aerosol dispenser, known as an ‘atomiser’, uses a hand/finger operated pump, rather than a stored gas, to produce pressure in the container in order to propel the contents as a spray.

Teflon, the accidentally discovered super polymer

It was on this day in 1938 that Roy J Plunkett and his technician Jack Rebok, employees at Kinetic Chemicals, accidentally discovered Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, aka PTFE).

Plunkett was working on new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants when the gas in one bottle appeared to be finished, even though the bottle still weighed the same as full bottles. Curious about this, the container was sawn open, and instead of gas, Plunkett & Rebok discovered a slippery, waxy white powder. This was found to be polymerised perfluoroethylene, and further analysis showed the material had some rather unique properties – it was highly hydrophobic, had one of the lowest friction coefficients of any known solid, and was chemically inert with a very high melting point.

Realising they had something special on their hands, the material was patented by DuPont, founding owners of Kinetic Chemicals, and the trademark Teflon was registered in 1945.

Teflon - the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.(© All Rights Reserved)
Teflon – the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Its unique properties has resulted in Teflon finding application in a range of highly disparate domains. Its unusually low friction coefficient means that it is an excellent lubricant in applications requiring dry lubrication, reducing friction, wear and energy consumption in the machinery where it is used. Its chemical inertness makes it an excellent coating material in valves, seals and pipes carrying highly reactive and corrosive chemicals. Its hydrophobic qualities has resulted in it being incorporated as a membrane in Gore-Tex, a popular, breathable waterproofing material. It has been used in thread seal tape, applied to the feet of computer mice, as a coating for bullets and as a highly effective air filtration membrane, among many other applications.

And we all know how pervasive it has become as a non-stick coating for cooking pots and pans, thanks to its hydrophobic properties. Interestingly, the first pans using non-stick Teflon coating, the Tefal range, were developed in 1954 by a French engineer Marc Gregoire, who developed the cookware coating at the recommendation of his wife Collete, who saw him use it on his fishing tackle. (In some countries Tefal is marketed as T-Fal as a result of DuPont’s insistence that ‘Tefal’ sounded too similar to ‘Teflon’.)

It’s probably safe to say that Teflon is one of the most diversely applied modern materials – not bad for a polymer discovered by accident!

Celebrating yummy, syrupy, sticky caramel.

It’s April 5th, which means it’s Caramel Day – the perfect opportunity to go all gooey about sweet, syrupy caramel.

Caramel in a chocolate shell - now that's what an easter egg should look like!(© All Rights Reserved)
Caramel in a chocolate shell – now that’s what an easter egg should look like!
(© All Rights Reserved)

There are basically two ‘categories’ (for lack of a better word) of caramel. First, there’s caramelised sugar – when sugar is heated to around 170 °C, the molecules in the sugar breaks down and re-arranges itself as a smooth, shiny tan/brown syrup. When caramelised sugar cools down, it sets and becomes hard and shiny – most kids know and love this type of candy as used in caramel toffee apples, for instance, where an apple on a stick is dipped in caramelised sugar syrup and allowed to cool and set.

Then there’s the runny, creamy caramel that we find in toffees, inside caramel chocolates etc. This is something very different, and is made by cooking a mixture of butter, sugar, milk/cream and vanilla. As the mixture heats up, the sugar reacts with the amino acids in the milk, resulting in the caramel’s brown colour. This reaction between sugar and amino acids in the presence of heat is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ – a form of non enzymatic browning. The same reaction is responsible for the browning of roasted meat and fried onions, roasted coffee and the browned crust of baked bread, among others.

The level of ‘runny-ness’ of this second category of caramel depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients, ranging from fairly solid, sticky caramel toffees through to smooth, soft and creamy caramel sauce.

From rock-hard caramelised sugar to smooth, creamy caramel sauce – the world of sweets and desserts would surely be a much poorer place without caramel!

Celebrating the Bunsen burner, a staple in every chemistry lab

So it’s the last day of March, and we celebrate Bunsen Burner Day. Anyone who did chemistry in high school will remember the trusty Bunsen burner, a staple tool in avery chemistry lab, and more often than not a key part in some seriously derailed chemistry experiments.

In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.(© All Rights Reserved)
In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bunsen Burner Day is celebrated on 31 March in honour of Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen (31 March 1811 – 16 August 1899), German chemistry professor and inventor of various pieces of laboratory equipment, including the Bunsen burner. The science behind the way a Bunsen burner works is similar to that used in gas stoves and gas furnaces. The burner is connected via a tube to a container with flammable gas, and as the burner is opened, the gas flows through a small hole in the bottom of the burner’s barrel. Openings in the side of the tube allow air into the gas stream, and the mixture is ignited by a spark or flame at the top of the tube. The amount of air mixed in with the gas can be controlled by opening or closing the gaps at the base of the barrel – as the amount of air is increased up to an optimal point, the combustion becomes more complete, resulting in a hotter flame – as it heats up, the flame becomes blue and transparent, becoming almost invisible at its optimal level.

To this day, Bunsen burners remain a laboratory staple, and it is used on a daily basis in literally thousands of laboratories around the world.

Developing social and cognitive skills on International Tabletop Day

Today, 30 March, is International Tabletop Day, the day we celebrate all tabletop games. It is a reminder that these games – from chess to playing cards to snakes and ladders – can be a great way to spend some fun time with friends and family.

Since these games tend to be non-physical, they can be enjoyed by people of widely varying physical abilities – you don’t have to be a strong, fit 18 year old to take someone on in a game of Scrabble! As long as these games don’t keep us from physical activity, they can have great social and cognitive benefits, teaching us about communication, team work, strategy and innovative thinking. Just what the doctor ordered for a rainy day! (Just remember to get out of the house for a bit of a cardio-vascular workout when the weather clears…)

Still a classic - anyone a game of Scrabble?(© All Rights Reserved)
Still a classic – anyone a game of Scrabble?
(© All Rights Reserved)

And don’t think there’s nothing in the tabletop gaming genre for you just because you’re tired of the classic games like Scrabble and Monopoly – new tabletop games appear on an almost daily basis, and there are websites going to great lengths discussing and reviewing these – why not pop over to Tabletop Gaming News or have a look at the Top 10 new tabletop games for 2012 according to game informer.

Whatever rocks your boat – be it board games, dice games, war-games or card games – pull up a few chairs and have some fun on International Tabletop Day.

Keeping an eye out for smoke and mirrors

The 29th of March is Smoke and Mirrors Day, also known as the Festival of Smoke and Mirrors.

The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’, which generally refers to fooling or deceiving someone into believing what is not, originated from the old magic shows in the 19th century, when magicians used strategically positioned mirrors to produce illusions for the audience. At times it was necessary to move the mirrors, or to secretly change something else on stage, and this was hidden from onlookers using well-timed bursts of smoke.

'Smoke and mirrors' - patterns created through repeated mirroring of candle smoke.(© All Rights Reserved)
‘Smoke and mirrors’ – patterns created through repeated mirroring of candle smoke.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Smoke and mirrors day is there to remind us (the naive and gullible among us, in particular), that things are not always as they seem. Politicians, salespeople, entertainers – these are all people skilled at fooling their audience through cleverly applied verbal and non-verbal smoke and mirrors.

So while being distrustful of anyone and everyone is not a healthy way to go through life, we can definitely all do with a healthy dose of scepticism – watch out for those smoke and mirrors, people! 🙂

Remembering Paul Erdős, collaborator, eccentric, lover of numbers

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most colourful and eccentric characters in the world of mathematics (a domain not short on eccentrics at the best of times)- the Hungarian Paul Erdős (26 March 1913 – 20 September 1996).

Erdős, a serial collaborator, was one of the most prolific publishers of mathematical papers in history. The volume of his output has been compared with the great Leonhard Euler, but while Euler published more pages (mostly as solo author), Erdős published more articles (more than 1500 in his lifetime), many in collaboration with other mathematicians.

Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.(© All Rights Reserved)
Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The British mathematician and author Timothy Gowers once wrote an essay entitled “The Two Cultures of Mathematics”, in which he classed mathematicians into two groups – the ‘problem solvers’ and the ‘theory developers’, with the latter often held in higher regard in the history of mathematics. Erdős, however, definitely fell into the former category – he was particularly fond of those problems that appeared simple to understand, yet notoriously difficult to solve. Most of his work focused on number theory, combinatorics, approximation theory, set theory and probability theory. However, thanks in part to his fondness for collaborating with other mathematicians, he also made contributions in completely unrelated fields such as topology.

As mentioned before, Erdős was known to be a bit of an eccentric. He had little interest in earthly possessions, giving most of what he had away to causes he considered worthy. Most of his life fit into a single suitcase, and since he first emigrated from Hungary (moving first to England, and later to America after accepting his first position at Princeton University), he lived a nomadic lifestyle, travelling between different mathematical colleagues and collaborators. It is said that he often arrived without warning, pitching up on a prospective collaborator’s doorstep with the words “My mind is open!”, to indicate his readiness to collaborate. After staying for a few weeks, he would move on to the next destination.

In recognition of his prolific collaborations, Erdős’ friends devised the ‘Erdős number’ – an indicator of a person’s degree of separation from Erdős himself (in terms of mathematical collaboration). Thus Erdős had a number of 0, while his immediate collaborators had an Erdős number of 1, his collaborators’ collaborators had an Erdős number of 2, and so on. Due to the extent of his mathematical collaborations, and the collaborations of these individuals with scientists from other fields, many physicists, engineers, biologists etc also have low Erdős numbers.

Despite the extent of his publications and collaborations, Erdős never received mathematics’ highest prize, the Fields Medal, nor did he co-author a paper with a recipient of this award. He similarly missed out on many other of the more illustrious mathematics awards, with the most significant award bestowed on him probably being the Israeli Wolf Prize.

Despite this lack of formal recognition, Erdős’ contribution to a wide range of mathematical topics have been acknowledged by his peers, and he is fondly remembered as someone with an unwavering passion for numbers, and one of the most colourful characters in mathematics.

The birth of the humble rubber band

It was on this day, 17 March 1845, that the elastic rubber band, made from vulcanised rubber, was patented by it’s English inventor Stephen Perry. Around the same time, Jaroslav Kurash also independently came up with his version of the rubber band.

While this counts as the ‘invention of the modern rubber band’, it is by no means the first occurrence in history of these super-useful little binding tools. Many years before the Mayans had already used the sap from rubber trees to create elastic strands to bind things together.

The rubber band - another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.(© All Rights Reserved)
The rubber band – another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From their modern-day invention in 1845 it took almost 80 years before William Spencer first started mass producing rubber bands in Ohio, USA. And the rest, as they say, is history – it is nigh impossible to imagine a world without rubber bands.

Throughout history two types of rubber have been used to manufacture rubber bands – natural rubber or latex from rubber trees, and synthetic rubber, a by-product of crude oil refinement. Modern day rubber bands are basically created by extruding rubber into long tubes of varying colour, thickness and diameter. These elastic tubes are sliced into thin circles, creating rubber bands as we know them.

Very simply stated, rubber consists of chains of molecules bonded in such a way that the molecules can move, thus allowing the rubber to be stretched. The bonds between the molecules pull them back together again, causing rubber’s elasticity. Of course it is possible to stretch a rubber band too far, severing the bonds between the molecules, and causing the rubber band to snap. Over time, light and heat also weakens the chains of molecules, resulting in the bands to get brittle and more readily breakable.

Can you believe that the biggest rubber band ball (a ball created by wrapping rubber bands around each other ) was created by Joel Waul in 2008 in Florida, USA? It weighed a whopping 9400 pounds, exceeded 8 feet in height, and consisted of more than 700 000 rubber bands!?