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Posts Tagged ‘science’

23 JULY, 2012

Trinity: A Graphic History of the Atomic Bomb

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From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, or what uranium isotopes have to do with moral philosophy.

When Robert Oppenheimer was charged with recruiting the best and the brightest for a top-secret project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he was faced with a hard sell: convince some of the most well-respected physicists in America to leave their research, uproot their families, and travel across the country for reasons that he couldn’t explain. There was only one thing he could tell them for certain: that their work would help defeat the Germans.

The dense, complicated, and fascinating story of the making of the atomic bomb is not an easy one to tell. It contains novels within novels of scientific breakthroughs and collaborations, dangerous new discoveries, government cover-ups and conspiracies, of criss-crossing allegiances, entire cities destroyed, and of course, a basic understanding of particle physics. Richard Rhodes gave the story the vigorous historical treatment in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and composer John Adams rendered it elegiacally in his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic.

In Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (public library), writer and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm suggests that the story of the atomic bomb is perhaps something told best not through thousands of government documents, but instead drawn on a chalkboard. The result is a concise and beautiful grasp on one of the most complex and essential events of the twentieth century — and a fine testament to the power of graphic storytelling in serious nonfiction.

Robert Oppenheimer prepares for the Trinity test.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

From the discovery of radioactivity in the lab of Marie and Pierre Curie, to the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning about the dangers of the newly discovered nuclear fission, the events leading up to the Manhattan Project are interspersed with exacting diagrams of crashing atoms and the disruptions at the heart of the nucleus that make up the fundamentals of fission, chain reactions, fragile isotopes of uranium, and their destructive potential.

Physicists Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi discuss nuclear fission at Columbia University, c. 1938.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

While the scientists on the project were led by Oppenheimer, the entire Manhattan Project was sealed and compartmentalized by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who had the unenviable task of getting thousands of civilians and scientists to abide by military rule. From plumbers, to secretaries, to the military police, few knew what they were working towards. Not even the scientists knew what the other scientists were doing, a frustrating effect of government lockdown for Oppenheimer, who was stymied without scientific collaboration.

The detonation inside of the Fat Man bomb, which was used on Nagasaki.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Eventually, the scientists were allowed to work together in a carefully restricted area, and the work continued. The separate elements of the project soon came together: fissioning a critical mass of uranium, setting off a chain reaction, and delivering the payload.

The beginning of the chain reaction.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Fetter-Vorm explains that the destruction and after-effects of radioactivity on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left the scientists of the Manhattan project, who had for years wondered “Can it be done?” to finally question “Should it be done?” The single-minded world of Trinity was a bell jar of furiously-working scientists, for whom success was an explosion, but not its result.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity joins The Influencing Machine, Feynman, and The Zen of Steve Jobs as a fascinating visual reimagining of a story that is at once tremendously culturally significant and thrillingly human.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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19 JULY, 2012

Einstein, Gödel, and the Science of Time Travel

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Meeting your future grandchildren in a rotating universe.

The fabric of time remains among the most fascinating frontiers of science, and the concept of time travel among the most prolific plot lines of science fiction. In this short video from THNKR, who also brought us the BOOKD series on paradigm-shifting books, theoretical physicist Ronald Mallett goes against the present scientific consensus and argues, by way of Einstein and Gödel’s theories, that time travel might, indeed, be possible. Whether in a century we’ll look back and laugh at the wild misguidedness of his proposition or at its blatant obviousness, only time will tell.

Gödel actually showed that if we were living in a rotating universe, this universe could create loops in time — and by “loops in time” I mean you actually have a timeline that’s normally a straight line of past, present, and future, that’s turned into a loop — and you can actually go along that loop in time and go back into the past. And he based his work squarely on Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

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17 JULY, 2012

A Rare Glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomical Drawings

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How one of history’s greatest artists almost became history’s greatest anatomist.

Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.

A study of a man standing facing the spectator, with legs apart and arms stretched down, drawn as an anatomical figure to show the heart, lungs and main arteries.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Three studies, one on a larger scale, of a man's right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

An anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.

Large drawing of an embryo within a human uterus with a cow's placenta; smaller sketch of the same; notes on the subject; illustrative drawings in detail of the placenta and uterus; diagram demonstrating binocular vision; a note on relief in painting and on mechanics.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of a man's left leg, stretched forward; beside it, a man's legs seen from behind; below is a man standing, turned in profile to the left, with his left leg advanced; to the right are two studies of the bones of human left legs and thighs, and one of an animal; with many notes on the muscles.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of the dissection of the lower leg and foot of a bear, viewed in profile to the left. To the left there is also a slight drawing of the leg.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.

As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.

Drawing of external genitalia and vagina, with notes; notes on the anal sphincter and diagrams of suggested arrangement of its fibers and its mode of action.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Five studies of the bones of the leg and foot; a drawing of the knee joint and patella; two studies of the bones of a right leg with the knee flexed; the muscles of a right buttock, thigh and calf.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysteriously made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.

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12 JULY, 2012

A Vintage Scientific Paper Published as a 38-Stanza Poem

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Verse and vengeance in vintage Australian astrophysics.

Remember last week’s first-ever poem published in a scientific journal? Turns out, it wasn’t the first. Reader Julia Deneva, a Cornell astronomer and fellow Bulgarian, alerts me to The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 by New South Wales physicist J. W. V. Storey, a paper published as a 38-stanza poem, appeared in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia in 1984. It was as much an act of creativity as it was one of vengeance. Deneva writes:

The unfortunate astronomer who got scheduled last at the annual meeting of said society decided to take revenge and gave his talk in verse — and later submitted it for publication.

The paper-poem is prefaced by the following hand-written note in the margin beside the first stanza:

It is, needless to say, just as geekily charming as it sounds:

I wrote my abstract, sent it in,
With words that don’t offend.
Imagine my horror to find that I
Am scheduled at the end.

Let me say, to be last speaker,
There are very few things worse.
And so this talk, to get revenge,
Will be entirely in verse.

The subject I address today
Is that of star formation.
And what we’ve found out recently
About the situation.

Stars start out as clouds of gas and
Dust and bits of spinning stuff.
Collapsing gravitationally
Until they’re dense enough.

They form themselves in little lumps,
(Or so says this bloke Jeans).
‘Dynamic Instabilities’
Whatever that term means.

A protostar is thus created,
Igniting nuclear fuel.
Before too long the star begins
To really lose its cool.

A massive wind begins to blow;
No one’s quite sure why.
But it’s quite clear the gas and stuff
Begins to really fly.

Well, from all this result what’s called
Protostellar outflow.
Bipolar, fast, and hot as hell —
We see it in CO.

But radio can’t tell us much;
There are but few transitions,
And cool CO’s so common, it
Confuses most positions.

So, most of what we know of this
Comes from the infrared —
That bit of spectrum in the middle
That decent people dread

Way back in 1976,
2 Micron lines were found
In Orion where, I’m sure you know,
Molecules abound.

Now everyone was most surprised,
These lines put out much power.
No one thought they’d be that strong —
Not even Neugebauer.

The lines were due to hydrogen
Molecules, and they
Don’t emit much until heated
To at least two thousand K

Well, people studied this for years,
Finding H2 everywhere.
But still these lines don’t tell you what
Density is there.

What we need’s another line:
Density dependent.
This view needs no genius
In order to defend it.

I’ve talked for several minutes now,
(I’ve half an hour to go),
I’m sure you’re most surprised I haven’t
Mentioned yet the KAO

Carbon monoxide, really hot,
Has heaps of good transitions
Depending critically upon
The density conditions.

These lines are in the far — IR,
But wait — here’s the best bit —
To see them you will need to use
The KAO, you guessed it!

In 1980, from the plane, we
Found it in Orion,
But no more CO could we find
Despite long hours of flyin’.

So models of Orion’s shock
Were looking really grand,
But it remained the only source
We claimed to understand.

We needed several other sources,
All of which we’d then compare.
But when we looked for shocked CO,
We always found it wasn’t there.

And so I searched for southern sources
Of this shocked H2,
And found it, in G333
Point six, minus, naught point two.

It’s really very, very bright
And made us all quite happy.
The data’s good, the lines are strong
(Though the slide don’t look real snappy.)

So, if we want to search again
For shocked CO, and wouldn’t you?
What better place than G333
Point six, minus, naught point two!

The problem with this new-found source,
I hardly need to warn you,
Is that it’s too far south to see
From sunny California.

And so to us the Kuiper came;
In May last year it made it.
The cost was astronomical,
But NASA mainly paid it.

Thus we made a set of flights
From Richmond Airforce Base.
One such flight is shown right here:
Our tracks’s this dotted trace.

How the instrument is made
Upon this slide is told;
It uses liquid helium
To keep all these bits cold.

Well, here’s the data — please don’t laugh,
It often looks this way.
A few times through the VAX and then
We’ll publish it as Ap J.

The line is there, I kid you not,
This dip here’s just the sky.
To see the peak you simply need
A good impartial eye.

Least-squares fitting gives a curve
From which derive the facts.
(Oh, let me thank the AAO
For lending me their VAX.)

Vlsr is fifty-three.
It’s pleasing, as you see.
The radio line velocities
More or less agree.

Intensity is really weak:
It’s two point nought by ten.
To the minus eighteenth power
(In watts per square cm.)

That’s thirty times as weak as we
Detected in Orion.
No wonder it took several years
Of concentrated tryin’

Well, as you see, I don’t yet have
Any numbers clear
For density, and things like that.
(It’s only been a year.)

But now we have not one, but two
CO sources, it is true:
Orion, and this G333
Point six, minus, naught point two.

In fact, the sources now are three
Because, again last May,
The very next flight that we did
Found CO in Sgr A.

Well, thank you all for listening
(Though some of you have slept)
I wonder now, will Dick McGee
This manuscript accept?

Now that’s a whole new layer the creativity-in-science conversation.

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