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.

Poet’s Day, mathematically speaking

Today is Poet’s Day, a day to celebrate the sensitive souls who, through the ages, shared their deepest thoughts through verse and rhyme. I have to admit to being more of a ‘prose person’ than a ‘poetry person’, but that by no means implies that I don’t have the greatest respect and admiration for a good poem – it’s simply not my very favourite literary form.

Of course there’s a close relation between poetry and mathematics – a subject that is close to my heart. It was Einstein who said: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

Mathematics in general seem to play an important role in poetry. Not only is there mathematics in the structure and rhythm of poetry, but many poems have also been written that contain overt mathematical themes. In a 2010 article entitled Poetry Inspired by Mathematics, Sara Glaz from the University of Connecticut, discusses some examples of such poems. More examples can be found in an earlier article from 2006 by JoAnne Growney, Mathematics in Poetry. In the latter article, Growney elegantly states, “As mathematicians smile with delight at an elegant proof, others may be enchanted by the grace of a poem. An idea or an image expressed in just the right language–so that it could not be said better–is a treasure to which readers return.”

The wonderful Fibonacci number sequence not only pops out in nature, but now claims its place in the world of the poet as well.
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An interesting new poetic form which I’ve discovered while doing some background reading for today, is the so-called “Fibonacci poetry”, which is based on the Fibonacci number sequence. Fibonacci numbers are a sequence, starting with 0 and 1, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two, i.e. 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,…

Fibonacci numbers occur often in nature, as I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post.

In poetry, the number sequence can refer to the numbers of letters, syllables or words in successive lines of the poem. These poems, known as ‘Fibs’, are six lines long, typically starting with a single letter/syllable/word in the first line. They can, however, theoretically start with any number of letters/syllables/words in the Fibonacci sequence.

Even though this form, originally introduced by Gregory K in a blog post on the GottaBook blog, appears to still be more popular among mathematicians than among poets, it has managed to garner a mention in the New York Times Books section. Their example, based on syllables, neatly illustrate the concept:

and rumor 
But how about a 
Rare, geeky form of poetry?

I like the idea, I really do – very cool indeed! So, without further ado, herewith my own humble Fib for the day:

not just in nature
but warming the hearts of poets too.

(uhm, assuming ‘poets’ is a single syllable word, of course…)

Happy Poet’s Day, everyone!  And please do share some Fibs, if you’re that way inclined!

Get your rhyming caps on – it’s Clerihew Day!

In celebration of Clerihew Day, and in keeping with the science slant of this blog, herewith my clerihew for the day:

Isaac Newton was a Sir
whose theories caused quite a stir
problems that made others grapple
he solved by being hit by an apple!

Newton, putting the science into the apple!
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A clerihew? Say what?

Clerihew Day is the birthday of Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), writer and poet, and most famously, the inventor of the clerihew – a light and frivolous 4-line biographical poetic form. The rhyme scheme is AABB, with lines of irregular length and meter. The first line typically contains a personal name, while subsequent lines are biographical in nature, but with a fun, lighthearted touch.

So, anyone else wants to have a go?
Please comment if you have a science clerihew!

Do the write thing – celebrate Ball-point Pen Day!

Back in 1943, on 10 June, a patent was filed by the Hungarian Biro brothers, Laszlo and George, for a new type of writing instrument – the ball-point pen.  The Biro’s weren’t the first to come up with the idea of a pen using a roller-ball mechanism to distribute ink in a controlled manner (the first patent for a similar instrument was issued in 1888 already, and the Biro’s also filed an earlier patent in 1939), but their 1943 design was the one that proved commercially viable.  Once they’d refined their design, they started marketing the pens in Argentina.

The new ball-point pens quickly caught the attention of the British Royal Air Force – they were sturdier than traditional fountain pens, and they also worked at higher altitudes.  Proving their toughness with the Royal Air Force, Biro pens became widely used by the military during World War II.

Its Ball-point Pen Day – the day to Do the Write Thing
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Bic bought out the Biro brothers’ patent in 1950, and has since sold in excess of 100 billion ball-point pens.  The Bic ball-point pen has become so ubiquitous that the term ‘bic pen’ has come to be used as the catch-all term when referring to disposable ball-point pens in general.

Some of the more interesting recent achievements in the continued development of the ball-point pen include the rollerball pen, which combine the basic ball-point design with the use of liquid ink similar to fountain pens, and so-called space pens, which combine highly viscous ball-point pen ink with a gas-pressured piston mechanism forcing the ink toward the point. This allows the pen to write upside down or in zero gravity environments.

It’s hard to imagine life without the trusty old ball-point. With disposable pens having become a popular branding/marketing hand-out, I haven’t had to buy a pen in over 10 years and there always seems to be one handy wherever I am in the house… or car… or office… 🙂