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Celebrating Einstein’s birthday on Pi Day

Besides today being World Kidney Day, which I incorrectly listed on the blog for yesterday, the 14th of March is also the celebration of Pi Day, commemorating the mathematical constant π (pi), which, to two decimal points, equals 3.14.

Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.(© All Rights Reserved)
Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

OK, we’ve already celebrated Pi Approximation Day on the 22nd of July (22/7 is also used to approximate π), but surely this amazing number deserves another mention.

So bake yourself 3.14 pies and share in the celebrations!

Making today extra special, we also celebrate the birthday of Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955), the greatest scientist of the 20th century. What makes Einstein such an endearing figure is that, besides his numerous groundbreaking contributions to science (thermodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, wave-particle duality, statistics, cosmology, nuclear physics and much more), he has also made deeply profound contributions to secular subjects as diverse as war and peace, religion, human rights, economics and government.

The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein - a continuous source of insight and inspiration. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein – a continuous source of insight and inspiration.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Many volumes have been written about the great man, so rather than trying (and no doubt failing) to adequately capture his contributions in a single blog post, I will rather leave you with one of his many, many wonderful quotes:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.
The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

James Dewar, frozen air and a new way to store energy

Today is the second time we meet up with Scottish scientist James Dewar. We’ve already discussed his ingenious Dewar flask, made famous by the Thermos company. As mentioned at the time, Dewar worked with some rather chilly subjects – liquified and frozen gases, to be exact – and he created his insulating flask to serve his practical need for a container that could maintain the low temperatures of the liquified gases he studied.

The reason Dewar pops up on this blog today, is again related to his low temperature work. It was on this day, 9 March 1893, that he informed a meeting of the Royal Society that he had succeeded in freezing air into a clear and transparent solid. As reported in The Manufacturer and Builder Volume 25 Issue 7, he requested additional funding to further study the exact properties of this frozen air; he postulated that “it may be a jelly of solid nitrogen containing liquid oxygen, much as calves’ foot jelly contains water diffused in solid gelatine. Or it may be a true ice of liquid air, in which both oxygen and nitrogen exist in the solid form.” Part of this confusion on the part of Dewar was that he had not been able to freeze pure oxygen, hence it was not clear how the oxygen part of the frozen air behaved.

I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!(© All Rights Reserved)
I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interestingly, frozen air has recently resurfaced as an subject of research interest. As reported last year on various sites such as ecogeek, sustainable and NBC News, a UK-based company Highview Power Storage has developed a proprietary process using cryogenic air (actually nitrogen, liquified at -321 degrees Fahrenheit) as a way to store energy. Available energy is used to freeze/liquify the nitrogen, which is then kept in its frozen form in a highly isolated, giant vacuum flask. When energy is required, the nitrogen is allowed to warm to ambient temperature, and the energy released during its transition to a gas phase, is harvested to drive a turbine that generates electricity.

While the technology is not yet able to achieve the efficiency of current battery technologies, it is a potentially less environmentally harmful, greener approach.

Now there’s a reason to raise a glass of very chilled liquid to James Dewar and his frozen air!

Pyotr Lebedev and the pressure of light

Today we celebrate the birthday of the Russian physicist Pyotr Nikolayevich Lebedev (8 Mar 1866 – 1 Apr 1912).

Working in the field of electromagnetism, Lebedev was responsible for a rather famous physics experiment in 1899 – measuring the pressure a beam of light exerts on a solid body. By doing this, he was the first to quantitatively confirm James Clark Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. Not only did he prove that the pressure exerted by light, although minute, is very real – he also proved that the pressure of light on a reflective surface is twice as great as on absorbent surfaces.

Thanks to Pyotr Lebedev we have proof that light exerts physical pressure on a solid body.(© All Rights Reserved)
Thanks to Pyotr Lebedev we have proof that light exerts physical pressure on a solid body.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Lebedev’s discoveries led him to postulate that it was the pressure exerted by sunlight on tiny particles of cosmic dust that made the tail of a comet point away from the Sun. However, it is now generally accepted that solar wind has more effect than light pressure in determining the direction of a comet’s tail.

Lebedev died quite young, yet his achievements was significant enough that the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow and the lunar crater Lebedev are named after him.

Stanley Miller, primordial soup and the origin of life

Today we celebrate the birthday of Stanley Lloyd Miller (7 March 1930 – 2 May 2007), the American chemist and biologist known for his experiments into the origin of life.

The most famous of his experiments was the so-called ‘Miller-Urey experiment’, where he and his research partner Harold Urey showed that it was possible, using simple chemical and physical processes, to create organic compounds from inorganic substances. This was considered a logical explanation of how organic life could have started on an planet made up of inorganic chemicals.

In my minds eye I've always imagined primordial soup as a rather ominous-looking pond of bubbling and steaming chemical liquid, very much like the thermal geysers at Rotorua, New Zealand. (© All Rights Reserved)
In my minds eye I’ve always imagined primordial soup as a rather ominous-looking pond of bubbling and steaming chemical liquid, very much like the thermal geysers at Rotorua, New Zealand.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The famous Miller-Urey experiment, conducted in 1952 at the University of Chicago, tried to recreate the conditions existing on the early Earth before organic life existed. The experiment combined a number of chemical compounds – water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen – sealed in an connected loop of glass tubes and flasks. The first flask, containing the chemical mix, was heated to cause evaporation, and the gas was allowed to flow into a second flask where sparks (simulating lightning) were fired between electrodes installed in the flask. The ‘electrocuted gas’ was then cooled again in a subsequent flask, and the condensed liquid was allowed to trickle back into the first flask. This cycle was continued over an extended period.

After about a day, the chemical liquid was reported to turn pink, and after about 2 weeks of operation, Miller and Urey found that some of the carbon in the system had turned into organic compounds. By this stage the mixture included amino acids, sugars, bio-molecules and hydrocarbons.

The Miller-Urey experiments showed, quite compellingly, that simple organic compounds – building blocks for proteins and other organic macromolecules – could be created from basic chemical compounds with the addition of heat and electricity.

The spontaneously created brew of life-yielding organic compounds support the ‘primordial soup’ theory first proposed by Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin in 1924. Very simply stated, the theory suggests that the early Earth’s atmosphere, exposed to various forms of energy, produced simple organic compounds, which accumulated as a ‘soup’ in various locations, and through further transformations, more complex organic polymers were formed, leading ultimately to the formation of water-based organic life forms.

Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen foods

Our subject for today is frozen foods. According to the Today in Science History website, it was on this day, 6 March 1930, that General Foods first started selling individually packaged frozen foods. Called ‘Birds Eye Frosted Foods’, the idea came from a guy called Clarence Birdseye, who started offering frozen food for sale to the public in 1929, after seeing people thawing and eating frozen fish during a visit to Canada.

Within the first 2 months, sales of the Birds Eye line of frozen foods increased significantly, prompting the start of a huge retail frozen foods industry.

Frozen foods - convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.(© All Rights Reserved)
Frozen foods – convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Freezing is one of the easiest ways of preserving food for future use, by either killing or inhibiting pathogens that cause food spoilage. It is, however, not as effective as high-temperature treatments since less of the harmful pathogens are killed, and those that are only inhibited are likely to again become active once the frozen foods are thawed. Some spoilage processes are also only slowed down and not stopped, and so frozen foods can typically only be kept for a limited time, particularly in some domestic freezers which may not maintain food at low enough temperatures. Long term storage apparently requires temperatures of 0 °F (-18 °C) or lower. Of course boiling and then freezing food greatly increases the effectiveness of the preservation.

As far as nutritional value is concerned, some vitamin loss is said to occur during freezing, mainly Vitamin C, but also, to a much lesser extent, Vitamins B1, B2 and A.

Despite its limitations, freezing remains one of the most widely used preservation techniques, with frozen pre-cooked meals counting among the most popular products. Its convenience and practical value has made the frozen foods industry a massive multi-national, multi-million dollar industry.

So next time you grab a quick frozen meal from the freezer, think about good old Clarence Birdseye and the Canadians with their frozen fish, who started it all back in the early part of the 20th century.

Laplace and the floating needle

Today we commemorate the death of the man sometimes known as the ‘French Newton’Pierre-Simon Laplace (23 Mar 1749 – 5 Mar 1827).  Laplace was a bit of a super-scientist, excelling in mathematics, physics, statistics and astronomy.

Among other things, Laplace performed fundamental mathematical analyses of the solar system, studied the thermochemical effects of combustion, and did groundbreaking work in mathematical calculus and the solution of linear partial differential equations.

In addition to all his other achievements, Laplace built upon earlier work by English scientist Thomas Young, to explain surface tension in liquids (essentially it’s ability to resist an external force) in terms of the attraction between the molecules in the liquid (known as cohesion). This cohesive force existing in a liquid results in some very interesting natural phenomena, such as enabling a needle to float on water. Some insects use surface tension to allow them to walk on water.

The phenomemon of surface tension can make the seemingly impossible possible, such as allowing a needle  to stay afloat on the surface of normal tap water.(© All Rights Reserved)
The phenomemon of surface tension can make the seemingly impossible possible, such as allowing a needle to stay afloat on the surface of normal tap water.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Laplace also used inter-molecular attraction to developed the theory of capillary action, where a liquid gets ‘sucked into’ a narrow tube due to a combination of cohesive forces within a liquid and adhesive forces between the molecules in the liquid and those in the containing tube.

The capillary pressure difference existing at the interface between two static fluids (e.g. water and air) can be described by a nonlinear partial differential equation, which is, fittingly, known as the Young-Laplace equation.

Despite being one of the great minds of all time, Laplace remained very aware of the limits of his own insights. As he wisely stated near the end of his life, “What we know is little, and what we are ignorant of is immense.”

Scientist extraordinaire Linus Pauling

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, Linus Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994). Beyond being a world leading chemist and biochemist, he was also a famous and outspoken peace activist.

Pauling holds the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded for research into the nature of the chemical bond and its use in elucidating molecular structure) and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons).

As a scientist, Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He did groundbreaking research on the analysis of molecular structures using the experimental technique of x-ray diffraction, complimented by quantum mechanical theory.

Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.(© All Rights Reserved)
Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.
(© All Rights Reserved)

During the later part of his career, Pauling’s interest moved to molecular medicine and medical research. It is during this period that he started promoting the controversial idea of high dosage vitamin C as a treatment for various illnesses, notably cancer. Research conducted by Pauling and the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron was reported to show a significantly increased survival rate among terminal cancer patients who were treated with high doses of Vitamin C. These results were, however, later questioned by researchers at the Mayo Institute, who claimed the test group and control group in Pauling’s trial were too dissimilar, with the test group alleged to be less ill than the control group. The Mayo Institute repeated the experiment and found that the Vitamin C had no greater effect than the placebo given to the control group. Pauling, in turn, criticised the Mayo experiment for using oral rather than intravenous Vitamin C, and for not continuing the treatment long enough.

The Mayo results were widely publicised and reduced public interest in the value of high dosage Vitamin C. Pauling, however, continued to study the subject, and kept promoting the treatment as an adjunctive cancer therapy. He also investigated the potential for vitamin C to treat the common cold, to prevent atherosclerosis and to relieve angina pectoris.

Acknowledging his contribution to science, Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the 20th century on the list.

Émile Coué and the power of optimistic autosuggestion

Today we celebrate the birthday of Émile Coué (26 Feb 1857 – 2 Jul 1926), a French pharmacist who is best known for his advocacy of optimistic autosuggestion, or positive reinforcement.

As a pharmacist, Coué noticed the people he interacted with in his pharmacy appeared to react very well to positive suggestion. To reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the medicines he prescribed, he made a habit of praising the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, and leaving small positive notes with the medication he sold.

This recognition of the power of suggestion led him to study the effect in more detail, and he became convinced that it held great potential. Even though he had no formal training in medicine or psychology, Coué introduced a method of primitive psychotherapy which involved the frequent repetition of the phrase ‘Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux’, translated as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ A strong believer in the power of suggestion, he was convinced that regularly repeating this phrase (morning and evening) would result in tangible physical and mental improvements in a patient.

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.(© All Rights Reserved)
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.
(© All Rights Reserved)


In 1920 Coué published a book on the topic, entitled ‘Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion’ (available for free on the Gutenberg project). In his book, he reiterated the potential power of autosuggestion, describing it as “… an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.”

Thanks to his tireless work in this field, his method of autosuggestion, sometimes referred to as ‘Couéism’, became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, first in Europe and later also in the USA. He had his detractors, particularly from other schools of psychoanalysis, but his approach has remained popular among many followers.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the Émile Coué approach comes to us courtesy of Rev Charles Inge, who composed this limerick in 1928:

“This very remarkable man
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don’t think you can’t,
So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

Cycad specialist, Charles Chamberlain

Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Joseph Chamberlain (23 Feb 1863 – 5 Feb 1943), an American botanist who did groundbreaking research into cycads.

A young cycad plant.(© All Rights Reserved)
A young cycad plant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Before Chamberlain, little was known about these weird plants that look like something of a cross between tree ferns and plants. Chamberlain’s unique contribution was to apply techniques from zoology – microscopic studies of cells and plant tissue in particular – to the study of plants. He was not only a laboratory scientist, however – between 1904 and 1922 he undertook several studies into wilderness areas in Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa and Cuba  to study the cycad in its natural surroundings. He collected a wide variety of specimens, which allowed him to investigate the generic stages of a cycad’s development.

In 1919 he published ‘The Living Cycads’, a comprehensive summary of his research on the taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, which is still a key reference work today.

By the time of his death, Chamberlain was close to finishing a monograph on the complete morphology and phylogeny of the cycad family, which would have been a most impressive culmination of his seminal work in the area. Sadly, because of his death, this monograph was never published.

Discussing the average man

Today we celebrate the birthday of Adolphe Quetelet (22 Feb 1796 – 17 Feb 1874), a Belgian mathematician, statistician, astronomer and sociologist. Quetelet made significant contributions in the application of statistics to sociology. He was a pioneer in the field of probability theory, applying it to social phenomena, and crime in particular.

Quetelet developed a unique method to statistically profile people. He defined the concept of the ‘average man’ – a theoretical construct that represented the average value for a wide range of human characteristics. In other words, Quetelet conceptualised a person who was average height, average weight, average age, average intelligence, etc.  Real individuals would therefore be grouped around this average man according to a normal bell curve. Quetelet’s average man was useful in people profiling, as real people could be defined in terms of how much they differed from the average man.

If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?(© All Rights Reserved)
If you walked past the average man, would you recognise him?
(© All Rights Reserved)

I find this ‘average man theory’ fascinating. Imagine meeting a real version of the absolutely average man. Would he seem average? Or would his incredible averageness actually make him stand out? How will the average people from different nationalities compare? Imagine putting the average American, Aussie, Kiwi, Englishman, German, Frenchman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South African, Italian, Russian, etc in a room together (each equipped with Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, so they could communicate). How do you think they would get along? Who would be the smartest? The strongest? The most obnoxious? The most aggressive? The fattest? Who will be best able to survive in a jungle, Bear Grylls style?

And how has the average man evolved over the past 200 odd years, since Quetelet first came up with the idea? Imagine putting the average men (from a specific nationality of your choice) from 1813, 1913 and 2013 next to each other – how would they differ?  For one thing, Mr Average 2013 would probably be older than his predecessors, given how populations are aging. Depending on the population we are operating in, he may also be more overweight. Will he be more intelligent than those before? Wil he be happier or more prone to depression? Who will be physically the strongest? The fittest? Who will have the best posture?

Of course, given enough statistical data on the different populations, the above answers should be available. I just don’t know what they are, so I can only wonder. And the most interesting thing is that we all have our own preconceptions about different nationality stereotypes. I am sure if you could select Mr Average from each of the world’s nationalities, and had to pick the most intelligent, the strongest, the most obnoxious etc, you would most likely already have someone in mind. The fun bit will be to see, given hard statistical data, just how wrong our preconceptions and stereotyping may be!