August 1, 2013 10:57 am
Today would have been Maria Mitchell’s 195th birthday, and if she were still around, she’d probably celebrate it by looking at the stars. Mitchell was America’s first female professional astronomer. She discovered a comet in 1847 while sitting on the roof of the bank where her father worked, and in 1865 became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. She also cofounded the American Association for the Advancement of Women and was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has a moon crater and a World War II Liberty Ship named after her, as well as an observatory in Nantucket.
The Maria Mitchell Association honors her legacy by providing hands on learning experiences for people in the Massachusetts area. They’ll be celebrating her 195th birthday in Nantucket, with games and activities dedicated to Mitchell.
Honoring Mitchell with a Google Doodle is part of Google’s push to feature women atop their search bar. They’ve recently profiled Rosalind Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Mirian “Mama Africa” Makeba.
Mitchell would likely appreciate the artistic rendering of herself perched atop a building looking at the stars. She once said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.”
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July 2, 2013 9:53 am
Three hundred and fifteen years ago today Thomas Savery’s patented the steam engine. His patent included no pictures, simply the following description:
”A new invention for raising of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire, which will be of great use and advantage for drayning mines, serveing townes with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefitt of water nor constant windes.”
Savery’s patent wasn’t entirely well received at the time. He was a military engineer, and the Surveyor of the Navy wasn’t at all interested in servicemen trying to come up with new ideas. He said of Savery’s patent application, “And have interloping people, that have no concern with us, to do to pretend to contrive or invent things for us?”
Today, Savery’s version of the steam engine is known as the Savery Pump. Here’s how it works, from Michigan State University:
The Savery pump required pressurized steam to force the water upwards. Water could be pushed upwards limited only by pressure of the steam. Savery writes: “my engine at 60, 70, or 80 feet raises a full bore of water with much ease.” The boiler would have needed to hold 35 psig pressure to raise water 80 feet- similar to the pressure in an automobile tire. It is likely that this use of such pressure was a reason that the Savery pump had a reputation for boiler explosions. Zealous operators undoubtedly increased the boiler pressure to pump water upwards further, and thus created some of the accidents by overpressurization.
To make his invention more popular, Savery wrote a little pamphlet called “The Miner’s Friend: or, A Description of an Engine to Raise Water by Fire.” He distributed the pamphlet around mining areas like Cornwall, hoping to get miners to use his pump in their mines. Many miners didn’t take him up on it, however, because they were afraid of the pumps exploding due to over pressurization. Their fears were certainly justified, as steam engine explosions were not uncommon. The book Safety-valves: their history, antecedents, invention and calculations explains:
It is not uncommon for a coroner’s jury, while attempting to ascertain the cause of some disastrous boiler explosion, to be told by the confident witness (he is always on hand in strong force in such occasions) that “the safety valves were all right, as they had been examined an hour before the explosion occurred.”
After Savery, many engineers improved upon the steam engine design, to give us things like trains and steam-powered ships. And the steam engine chugs along today, with steam turbines generating about 80 percent of the power we use on Earth.
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June 18, 2013 11:00 am
“It is no exaggeration to say that almost everything we know about the universe today has grown out of the effort to see past the flat, 2-D appearance of the sky and discern the true depths behind it,” Discover News writes. In the 1920s, maps helped Edwin Hubble discern that the universe is expanding; they clued Fritz Zwicky in on the presence of dark matter in the 1930s; and they helped tease out details supporting the Big Bang Theory in the 1990s.
Now, a new map captures not only the 3D structure of the universe, but the positioning and movement of invisible dark matter, too. The University of Hawaii describes the significance:
The video captures with precision not only the distribution of visible matter concentrated in galaxies, but also the invisible components, the voids and the dark matter. Dark matter constitutes 80 percent of the total matter of our universe and is the main cause of the motions of galaxies with respect to each other. This precision 3-D cartography of all matter (luminous and dark) is a substantial advance.
The correspondence between wells of dark matter and the positions of galaxies (luminous matter) is clearly established, providing a confirmation of the standard cosmological model. Through zooms and displacements of the viewing position, this video follows structures in three dimensions and helps the viewer grasp relations between features on different scales, while retaining a sense of orientation.
To celebrate astronomer Brent Tully’s 70th birthday, Discover writes, he and his friends hosted a conference at which they revealed this and one other new map of the universe that the group created together.
One is the color coded one, above, which depicts the exact location of every galaxy out to a distance of 300 million light-years. But the even more amazing one–the one that truly made my head spin, as I hope it will do to yours–is the 3D video, which shows not only all the visible structures but also the unseen dark matter, and illustrates the dynamic behavior of the whole thing.
The video maps 100 million light-years, or, as Discover rephrases, 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. It shows the structures of galaxy clusters, thread-like dark matter and open patches of lonely space.
This is the structure and evolution of the cosmos laid bare, covering distances and times and velocities that are, in a fundamental way, beyond human comprehension. And yet they are not truly beyond the reach of the intellect, because Tully has brought it all into view, with a little help from his friends. Give him 17 minutes and he will give you the universe. Happy birthday to you, and to all of us.
Here, you can take that journey with Tully and the birthday crew:
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May 1, 2013 3:22 pm
It took Santiago Ramón y Cajal quite a while to find his true calling in life. He tried his hand at cutting hair and at fixing shoes. As a boy in the mid-1800s, he planned for a career as an artist. But his father, an anatomy professor, shook his head and decided that young Ramón y Cajal would pursue medicine instead. The would-be artist went on to found the field of modern neuroscience, earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along the way. Born May 1, 1852, in Spain, Ramón y Cajal would have celebrated his 151st birthday today.
Before he began to stand out as a researcher, Ramón y Cajal had been an anatomy school assistant, a museum director and a professor and director of Spain’s National Institute of Hygiene. His most important work did not begin until around 1887, when he moved to the University of Barcelona and began investigating all of the brain’s different cell types. He discovered the axonal growth cone, which control the sensory and motor functions of nerve cells, and the interstitial cell of Cajal (later named after him), a nerve cell found in the smooth lining of the intestine. Perhaps most significantly, he developed the “neuron doctrine,” which demonstrated that nerve cells were individual rather than continuous cellular structures. Researchers consider this discovery the foundation of modern neuroscience.
In 1906, the Nobel committee awarded Ramón y Cajal and an Italian colleague the prize in Physiology or Medicine ”in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”
While Ramón y Cajal may have changed neuroscience forever, he maintained his original childhood passion. Throughout his career, he never gave up his art. He sketched hundreds of medical illustrations, and some of his drawings of brain cells are still used in classrooms today.
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March 14, 2013 12:56 pm
A woman whose liver, pancreas, stomach, large intestine and small intestine all began their lives outside her body has just given birth to a life of her own.
At age nineteen, Fatema Al Ansari was diagnosed with mesenteric thrombosis—a blood clot that caused her abdominal organs to fail and require transplant. Now, just seven years later, she is the proud mother of a baby girl, in the first documented case of anyone with five organ transplants giving birth. The Associated Press reports some of the challenges she faced during pregnancy:
Her recent pregnancy was considered high-risk and she was monitored closely by her team of transplant doctors and gynecologists in Miami.
She did not have an infection during her pregnancy, as her doctors had prepared for, but she faced minor complications including the flu, some bleeding and physical discomfort from her growing baby.
Having five organs transplanted is no longer incredible—which, in and of itself, is pretty amazing—but doctors couldn’t find any other case of someone with five transplants then having a child. Organ recipients must take drugs to suppress their immune systems, which would otherwise reject the foreign tissue, and are at high risk for infection. For Al Ansari’s body to even be able to grow with the baby is a feat.
In fact, the first post-transplant pregnancy wasn’t documented until 1963, according to Transplant Living. Several studies have chronicled pregnancy and delivery in patients with kidney transplants and heart transplants. In 1976, guidelines were proposed for those with transplants who wanted to get pregnant, including a one year waiting period after the surgery before pregnancy. And in 1991 the National Transplantation Pregnancy Registry was established to study women with transplants who wanted to have children.
In 2011, the Intestinal Transplant Association recorded 600 people who underwent five-organ transplants. For many of them, having children was probably considered impossible. But medicine is amazing, and now it might not be.
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