Category Archives: History

Sisters of the Sun

Henry Draper was a physician, but his passion was astronomy. At age 36, he left his positions as professor and dean of medicine at New York University to spend more time working in his observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

On Henry Draper’s death in 1882, Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering informed Anna Palmer Draper that he intended to carry out her husband’s desire to photograph and classify the stars, and she agreed to support and fund the work. As a result, the observatory’s largely-female staff became pioneers of astrophotography, spectral analysis, and astrophysics.

Dava Sobel’s book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, describes how night after night and decade after decade, the women exposed glass plate negatives, capturing a spectrum for each star in the telescope’s field of vision by placing a prism in their telescopes. Annie Jump Cannon grouped the stars in their hundreds of thousands of photographs according to the character of each one’s spectrum and classified them into seven types designated by the letters O, B, A, F, G, K and M.

The 2014 television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey told of the Harvard women, as well, focusing on Cannon and Cecilia Payne in part of its eighth episode, Sisters of the Sun. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson emphasized not only Cannon’s classification system, but also—more than Sobol—the opposition initially provided for Payne’s important addition to it.

When Payne—an expert in theoretical and atomic physics—migrated from England to the United States in search of academic opportunity as a woman, she joined the Harvard team of researchers—now under director Harlow Shapley—and provided insight into the meaning of Cannon’s categories. Payne determined that, without knowing it, Cannon’s system had classified the stars from the hottest to the coldest.

By analyzing the chemical composition and physical state of the stars, Payne discovered that the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium; unlike on earth, all the other elements were present only in trace amounts. This contention was so stunning that it was initially disparaged by Princeton University professor Henry Norris Russell, the dean of American astronomers at the time, and Payne backed off the central claim of her thesis. But four years later, Russell affirmed that Payne was right.

Cosmos used this delayed acceptance to make a strong point about the uniqueness of the process of scientific discovery: “The words of the powerful may prevail in other spheres of human experience,” Tyson said. “But in science, the only thing that counts is the evidence and the logic of the argument itself.” Payne was quoted as saying, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to authority when I believed I was right. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”

The overriding impression of Sobol’s account of the work at Harvard Observatory is of passionate curiosity in the face of staggeringly tedious work which achieved a number of significant scientific discoveries:

  • By Henrietta Leavitt:
    • The brighter the magnitude of a star, the longer the period of its variation. Known as the period-luminosity relation, this became the fundamental method for determining the distance to a star.
  • By Harlow Shapley:
    • The universe is not centered on the sun, is magnitudes bigger than previously thought, and contains many other galaxies besides the Milky Way.
  • By Cecilia Payne:
    • The ratios of hydrogen and helium in the stars is a million times higher than on earth.
    • The stars are similar to one another in chemical composition, but vary in temperature.
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Getting Better, VII

From Future Crunch: Storms, Earthquakes, Fires and Floods Aren’t Nearly as Dangerous as They Used to Be.


It’s easy to exaggerate the frequency and magnitude of events that have happened recently.

Tragically, almost 10,000 people died in 2016 in natural disasters around the world. Yet that number almost surely would have been much greater without the development and implementation of better early warning systems, GPS, mobile phones, television, radio and the internet.

Just 50 years ago, twice as many people typically died in natural disasters as do today, and a 100 years ago, twenty times as many:

The number of people being killed by natural disasters has declined over the last century despite about five billion people being added to the planet; this is because the human race is a lot better off than we used to be:

  • More people in the path of a hurricane are able to evacuate in time.
  • Wildfires aren’t the mortal threat to entire communities that they used to be.
  • Services like water and sanitation, shelter and food are restored more quickly after a disaster, in the US and poorer countries.

Death tolls from natural disasters in Africa and Asia are still higher than in the West, but they’re far lower than they used to be.

Fewer people die in natural disasters than ever before. It’s important for us to acknowledge that, and celebrate it. Humanity does get things right sometimes.

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Knowledge Against Ignorance

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, man’s understanding of his position in the universe was changing. But neither the mathematical calculations of Copernicus nor the observations of Galileo had provided proof that the Earth moved. Empiricism demanded a demonstration.

In his book, Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, Amir D. Aczel describes how the French physicist’s simple experiment exasperated the scientific elite and earned him a place among them by solving “the most persistent scientific problem of all time.”

After working for months in his Paris cellar, Foucault succeeded in 1851 in suspending a five-kilogram brass bob from a two-meter steel wire so that it was free to move in any direction around the vertical. As the pendulum swung in a fixed plane, Foucault was able to view how the rotation of the earth caused its orientation to shift.

Galileo had insisted in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, that “all experiments practicable upon the earth are insufficient measures for proving its mobility, since they are indifferently adaptable to an earth in motion or at rest,” but the untrained Foucault had shown otherwise.

After viewing a demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum at the Paris Observatory on February 3, 1851, the mathematicians and physicists of the French Academy of Sciences could not deny that they did “see the world turn.” But they quickly became incensed that their lifetimes studying rotations, gravity and astronomy had not led them to imagine and perform what many of them called Foucault’s “beautiful experiment.” Refusing to give Foucault his due because he was not one of them, they scrambled to justify their own shortcoming and minimize Foucault’s achievement, barely mentioning his work in technical reports of the year’s scientific activity.

It is likely that Foucault would never have received the recognition he deserved, including nomination to the Academy of Sciences and the Legion of Honour, without the support of President/Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who had a deep personal interest in science and was devoted to progressing the nation by promoting scientific ideas.

But ultimately, according to Aczel, “Foucault’s great triumph is a triumph of the human mind. It is a double victory of knowledge against ignorance. First, Foucault’s great achievement showed how physical intuition, engineering skills, and perseverance can win against the hubris of mathematics detached from the real world. More important, Foucault’s landmark experiment spelled the end of speculations and persistent false beliefs. As such, Foucault’s definitive proof of the rotation of the earth helped vindicate Galileo, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno.”

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Learning to Fly

History is almost always more nuanced than we would prefer, and many “historic” figures became such more by chance or bluster than genuine merit. But David McCullough makes clear in his book, The Wright Brothers, that the well-known aviation pioneers deserve every bit of their success and fame.

We knew about the Wrights’ initial powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, but I did not appreciate how the brothers at the time prudently chose not to tout their success before they were confident that their invention had become truly useful. McCullough describes how the brothers continued for the next several years learning to fly back in Ohio, largely out of view. Only a few witnessed the flights at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton where they mastered control of their flying machine and improved its engine, performing in varying winds and learning to maintain complete control throughout their flights.

Unhurried by others’ attempts to fly in the United States and Europe, they ignored the skeptical voices of many who had heard reports of their first brief flight but little since. The Paris Herald said provokingly in 1906, “They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.”

In addition, as their still largely unseen proficiency grew, the Wrights began to seek an outlet for their machine. The United States War Department declined their request for funding, saying the machine had not yet been brought to the stage of “practical operation.” So, despite Wilbur’s insistence that he was not a businessman, he travelled to Europe in 1908 to meet with representatives of the government in France, where the pursuit of flight was a national obsession. “He found himself in the thick of extremely complex commercial dealings,” according to McCullough, “playing for extremely high stakes with highly experienced entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats, and in a language he neither spoke nor understood.” Moreover, “at the war ministry it was being said the Wrights were ‘bluffers like all Americans,’ ‘worthless people’ trying to sell to France ‘an object of no value’ that even the Americans did not believe in.”

But in that fraught environment, out of his element, Wilbur demonstrated a strength of character beyond his scientific genius. “Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur ‘never rattled,’ as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about….Most importantly, he remained entirely himself, never straying from his direct, unpretentious way, and with good effect.”

In order to strike a deal with the French, there had to be a demonstration of the worthiness of their flyer. It was in 1908 in Le Mans, France that Wilbur Wright finally demonstrated in public the mastery of flight they had acquired mostly unnoticed.

Working without his brother or his primary mechanic, Charlie Taylor, Wilbur Wright prepared himself and his plane for the moment that would launch or ground their dream. In front of a crowd of spectators who waited for hours in hot sun, his thoroughness was almost unfathomable. “Neither the impatience of waiting crowds, nor the sneers of rivals, nor the pressure of financial conditions not always easy, could induce him to hurry over any difficulty before he had done everything in his power to understand and overcome it,” described his associate Hart O. Berg.

Wilbur personified the advice he later wrote to his brother when Orville was preparing for a demonstration of his own in Virginia: “Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent,” he insisted. “Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready.”

Wilbur was finally confident of his preparations in Le Mans on August 8, 1908, at six-thirty in the evening with dusk approaching, he turned his cap backward, and to those accompanying him said quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.”

He sailed away toward a row of tall poplars, where, at what seemed the last minute, the left wing dropped sharply, he banked off to the left, turned in a graceful curve, and came flying back toward the grandstand….Very near the point where he had started, he made another perfect turn to fly full circle once again, all at about 30 to 35 feet, before coming down to a gentle landing within 50 feet from where he had taken off. In all he was in the air not quite 2 minutes and covered a distance of 2 miles.

“The length of the flight was not what mattered,” said McCullough, “but that he had complete control and, by all signs, could have stayed in the air almost indefinitely.”

Mechanical and aeronautical genuises? Yes. But the Wrights’ success was due as well to their meticulous preparation, their confident refusal to make premature haste, their excruciating perseverance, and their integrity in seeking first to satisfy their own curiosity—to understand.

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What Might This Be?

In the 1950s, the Rorschach inkblot test was “as closely identified with the clinical psychologist as the stethoscope is with the physician.” Since their publication in Psychodiagnostics, in 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s ten inkblots have not only been used as a military, educational, corporate, legal and anthropological tool, but also:

In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls describes the progression that led from Rorschach’s visual work with a particular patient—”a wall painter with artistic ambitions” for whom the existing techniques of talk therapy, dream interpretation, and word association were ineffective—to the development of his famous test and the reasons it has endured for so long.

In the early twentieth century, klecksography, the art of making images from inkblots, was not only a popular parlor game—along with “readings” of patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes and candle wax drippings—but also a method used by psychologists to measure the extent of people’s imagination, particularly children.

Rorschach—who prior to becoming a psychologist was an artist—began to show people the inkblots he created himself “in connection with research on the nature of perception, not the measuring of imagination; he was…interested in what people saw, and how, not just how much.”

Searls ultimately insists that the resilience and power of Rorschach’s unique “visual psychology” stemmed from the fact that “we evolved to be visual” and therefore, “seeing runs deeper than talking.” The visual nature of Rorschach’s test—movement, color, form—was the key that rescued it from relativist uncertainty.

“Rorschach’s fundamental insight was a visual version of Jung’s types: we all see the world in different ways. But the fact that it’s visual makes all the difference. Understanding the real inkblots and their specific visual qualities gives us a way to move beyond the relativism, at least in principle. It’s not all arbitrary: there’s something truly there that we’re all seeing in our own way. Rorschach’s insight can stand without forcing us to deny the existence of valid judgments, Truth with a capital T.”

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No Newspapers, No Spreadsheets, No Waiting

As a kid in the 1970s, my friends and I played simulated baseball games by rolling dice and viewing charts made using the statistics of Major League players from previous seasons. Before long, however, we decided that the probabilities represented by the charts were not based on recent enough data. So we started taking the current season’s numbers—a limited version of which was printed in the newspaper every Sunday—and making new charts for our games every week.

Beginning in the 1980s, a scoring system called rotisserie baseball allowed people to form teams that competed based on the current statistics of Major League players, similar to what we had done, but without the probability-based gameplay aspect.

In the early 1990s, some friends in the office started a rotisserie (or fantasy) baseball league that relied heavily on two resources which had appeared just a few years before:

  • USA Today
  • Electronic spreadsheets

Introduced in 1982 as a national daily newspaper, USA Today printed the complete Major League Baseball statistics in the paper’s sports section every week of the season. It was a twice-weekly ritual to assign one of the league’s team managers to acquire a copy of the paper—for American League numbers on Tuesday and National League numbers on Wednesday—on the way to the office. We knew where the delivery boxes were around town and often what time they were typically filled, and we relied on the paper on those days for the week’s statistics to update the numbers for our players.

The league’s commissioner (who didn’t have a computer at home) would go to the office on Saturdays and enter the week’s numbers from the paper into our spreadsheet, which calculated current team totals and league standings that were printed and distributed to the owners on Mondays.

When the web came along in the late 1990s, of course, online fantasy leagues were quickly launched by major sports entities to attract visitors to their sites. Now, I manage fantasy teams in leagues with owners across the country and around the world. And while I no longer celebrate successes at year’s end with a Yoo-Hoo shower in a borrowed tuxedo, during the season I have access to my players’ data and the league standings in real time, pitch by pitch. No newspapers. No spreadsheets. No waiting. Amazing.

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Understanding History

Historian and columnist T.R. Fehrenbach said in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, “History is too often revised to match contemporary views. It has been said that each generation must rewrite history in order to understand it. The opposite is true. Moderns revise history to make it palatable, not to understand it. Those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past—neither the horrors nor glories of which the human race is equally capable—and for that reason, they will fail to understand themselves.”

Indeed, we must understand history in order to perform the necessary process of rewriting it. News has been properly characterized as “the first rough draft of history,” and more formal, considered formats must involve rewriting. The problems Fehrenbach describes arise with the object and intent of many revisions.

His blanket accusation that “moderns” are motivated to revise by a desire to serve their own ends and to protect an audience they deem lacking in discernment may have been prompted by the most flagrant example of this type of revision, which is his own state’s school board. While they commit a heinous crime, born of arrogance and paranoia, such groups and individuals are more appropriately described as bizarre anachronisms than “moderns.”

Truly modern scholars understand more than ever that history is improved by filling gaps, restoring original contexts and exploring interrelationships between events. At one time, too much weight was given to established portrayals by believing and teaching that there was only one way for history to be understood. Michael Conway insisted in The Atlantic that “rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Much of history in the Western world was written by white men who believed that the universe—Galileo and Copernicus notwithstanding—revolved around them, and responsible and enlightened revision can only provide an improved history that will, indeed, help us better understand ourselves.

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