Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ada Lovelace Day 2014: The hard-earned fame of Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Today is the 6th annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2014 (ALD14). I'm sure you'll all recall, Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging.

(Cross-posted to the minouette blog)

This year I'm participating in an entire group art show celebrating Ada Lovelace Day. The Art.Science.Gallery show Go Ahead and Do It: Portraits of Women in STEM culminates today! I will share all of my portraits of women in science (and links to where I tell their stories) below.

Marie Curie linocut glows in the dark
Marie Skłodowska-Curie, linocut with glow-in-the-dark ink by Ele Willoughby, 2014

In previous years, I've specifically avoided writing about Marie Curie because she is often the one historical figure people can name. I don't like to do the obvious thing and particularly want to highlight the under appreciated heroines of science. However the result is that her truly remarkable achievements haven't been celebrated here, just because of her fame. So, with a collection of portraits and stories written on the less well known, today I'll write about the well-known and why she in fact deserves her fame.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934), Polish-born, naturalized-French physicist and chemist, as the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to ever win TWO Nobel prizes, and the only person ever to win in two different sciences: physics and chemistry! She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, she studied secretly at the Floating University there before moving to Paris where she earned higher scientific degrees, met her PhD supervisor and future husband Pierre.

She was one of the pioneers who helped explain radioactivity, a term she coined. She was the one who first developed a means of isolating radioacitve isotopes and discovered not one, but two new elements: polonium (named for her native country) and radium. She also pioneered radioactive medicine, proposing the treatment of tumors with radioactivity. She founded medical research centres, the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw which are still active today. She created the first field radiology centres during World War I. Each one of these achievements alone would warrant being memorialized in the annals of science and medicine; she did all of these things. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation, including carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research and her World War I service in her mobile X-ray units.

Her pioneering work explaining radioactivity earned her the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and with physicist Henri Becquerel. At first, the Committee intended to honour only Pierre and Becquerel, but Swedish mathematician Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, an advocate of women in science, alerted Pierre to the situation. (You may recall that it was the same man who helped Sofia Kovalevski secure a University position in Stockholm and that she collaborated on works of literature and had what was called a "romantic friendship" with his sister Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler).  After Pierre's complaint, Marie's name was added to the nomination. The 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to her "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."

Her life and legacy are truly extraordinary!

Marie Skłodowska-Curie, linocut with glow-in-the-dark ink show in the light and dark by Ele Willoughby, 2014

Not only was her work original and providing revolutionary insight on the theoretical side at the time, but the sheer heroic dedication and labour involved in her experimental work cannot be overstated. Having recognized that pitchblende ore must contain multiple elements which were giving off radiation, she and Pierre were able to show in 1898 that two new elements Polonium and Radium were needed to explain their observations. They then sought to actually isolate these elements. From a ton of pitchblende, she separated one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride in 1902. In 1910 Marie Curie isolated pure radium metal - a full 12 years after she and Pierre published their preliminary evidence for its existence. This involved working in a shed, meticulously separating the radioactive material from the inert and then dividing the radioactive material into its various sources for many years - all the while raising their young daughter when not at the lab.

Both of the elements she discovered are radioactive, meaning that they spontaneously give off radiation. All of the isotopes of polonium emit alpha particles, but Polonium-210 will emit a blue glow which is caused by excitation of surrounding air. Radium emits alpha, beta and gamma particles - that is 2 protons and 2 neutrons, electrons as well as x-rays. Thus, I've shown her sample surrounded by the symbols of these particles: the straight and wiggly lined arrows for the massive particles and high-energy light photons or gamma rays respectively, and made the sample with glow-in-the-dark ink. While the materials she discovered and worked with would have glowed due to radioactivity, never fear... these prints glow due to phosphorescence - a different process which is not dangerous. The ink will absorb UV light (for instance, from sunlight) and re-emit it in the dark.

The linocut is printed on Japanese kozo paper 9.25" by 12.5" (23.5 cm by 32 cm) in an edition of eight.

You can also find my complete set of women in STEM portraits here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Music about Data

Gafurius's Practica musice, 1496 showing Apollo,
the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios.
Science and music, like other arts, have a longstanding, close connection. Music can be described in terms of physics; notes translate to waveforms at a certain frequency, or equivalently certain pitch. Acoustics, tempo, rhythm, tones and overtones, harmonies and more can be explained in terms of physics. We can likewise discuss our physical world in terms of music.

In ancient Greece, Pythagoras and his followers placed a mystical meaning on his discovery of the mathematical underpinnings of music; he found that the length of a plucked string determined its pitch and that   simple (rational) ratios of a given length produced harmonies. They turned this idea on its head and apparently concluded that other fundamental patterns in nature were due not so much to mathematics, but that there was a musical underpinning to the known universe. Hence, the idea of the 'music of the spheres' and the hypothesis that planetary motions obeyed mathematical equations corresponding to musical notes and that the whole solar system together played its own symphony.

Kepler's musical notation for planetary motion and the range of sound
he ascribed to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury
The idea was so persistent that when Johannes Kepler (1571- 1630) was developing the best model of our solar system to fit the beautiful dataset gathered by his mentor Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), one of the first notations he used was not mathematical, but musical. In fact, the idea was pervalent, and Kepler ended up embroiled in a priority dispute with Robert Fludd (1574-1637), whose own harmonic theory had been recently published in De Musica Mundana. While we tend to think of Kepler with his rational, more precise elliptical version of a Copernican heliocentric solar system as one of the first, modern scientists, he progressed from his musical notation, to a model based on a rather mystical appreciation for the Platonic Solids. That is, rather than explaning planetary motion in terms of his laws, as we know then today, he tried to make a model spacing of the planets from the sun based on the relative size of a nested spheres just large enough to coat a  series of special shapes called the Platonic Solids: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron and icosahedron. He progressed from there, in his Harmonices Mundi (literally, harmonies of the worlds) to describe planetary motions in musical terms. He found that the difference between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of a planet in its orbit was very close to a harmonic proportion. For instance Earth's maximal angular speed relative to the sun varies by about a semitone (a ratio of 16:15), from mi to fa, between aphelion (the furthest point from the sun on its elliptical orbit) and perihelion (its closest point to the sun). In his words, "The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi", and he built up a choir of similarly singing planets. He found that all but one of the ratios of the maximum and minimum speeds of planets on neighboring orbits approximate musical harmonies within a margin of error of less than a diesis (a 25:24 interval) - to use a musical term.

Today we would attribute these patterns to the underlying mathematics of planetary motion, or the physics of music, rather than a music of the spheres underlying everything. Nonetheless this trick of Kepler's, of mapping observed patterns onto music, or of writing data as music still has its place. I recall a professor extolling the virtues of plotting data as it was collected, because we are wired to see patterns and would for instance, recognize a friend's face in a crowd with much greater ease than their phone number from a list of 7-digit numbers. The same can be said of sound; we are wired to recognize musical patterns. We can both appreciate the beauty of regular data mapped onto sounds we can hear, or use what we hear to recognize patterns.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the son of a famous lutenist, composer, and music theorist, which may have primed him to be observant of the measure of time, rhythm and periodic patterns. In Galileo's Daughter, author Dava Sobel argues that in the absence of accurate time pieces, music likely played an important role in his experiments. Many experiments involved timing repeated observations as precisely as possible and it is likely that he may have used song as his yardstick of time.

A couple of contemporary examples of expressing experimental data musically have been in the news of late.

The European CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland celebrated its 60th birthday with this delightful composition by physicist and musician Domenico Vicinanza, which turns data from four detectors at the Large Hadron Collider into LHChamber Music. Performed by CERN scientists and engineers, the result is surprisingly musical, like Baroque chamber music. Vicinanza has 'sonified' data before (including the satelitte Voyager I's magnetometer data), employing an algorithm to assign a musical note to each measurement created by experiments, so that the same data is presented as a musical score, much like Kepler did.

Sonifying data also allows scientists to hear patterns, to cope with massive datasets and find complexity which may otherwise have escaped them. Above, cicada calls are replaced with notes. The University of Uppsala team explains their sonification and visualization of the data:
The circles represent recording stations in the Australian bush that pick up the calls of cicadas. The intensity of the circle’s colour and its size is proportional to volume of sound in that area of the forest at that time (the videos is 15 x real time).
They could also add the sound of the cicadas themselves (speed up 15 times), but in the words of researcher James Herbert-Read, "that would be horrific". Instead they decided to translate cicada calls into music.
Each one of the four different coloured block of recorders also plays a different chord (we chose the standard I–V–vi–IV progression in the key of C major). By doing this, you can now not only see, but hear when cicadas in different areas of the forest start to sing, when other cease singing, and listen to the additive effect of all individuals singing together across large swathes of the forest.
The video is the cicada 'morning chorus' beginning at 5:30 am when light strikes the right hand side of the area shown, where the  first cicadas call. You see and hear other cicadas join, the early oscillations in volume and then the crescendo to full volume for the remainder of the chorus.

Locals had noted waves of cicada song moving through the forest and the researchers wanted whether they could prove the cicadas were in fact synchronized. They found quantifiable waves did in fact move through the forest. Though, they theorize that this is an emergent pattern, where each cicada follows his own rules and does not consciously try to synchronize with his neighbours.


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