Thursday, January 31, 2008

Paging Through the History of Science

A lot of my physics friends don't particularly understand my minor obsession with taking history classes because they don't understand just how it could be at all interesting. This semester, though, I'm taking "A History of Science in Western Thought," so I'm hoping that this post will clear a few things up as to why history can be such a great subject to devote spare credit hours to.

Last Friday, see, my history class took a visit to the rare books collection at the university library. It's a lovely spot filled with beautiful treasures from centuries past, and has such a friendly staff I feel bad that I hadn't visited them before... Anyway, we were looking at old science books mainly due to the nature of the class, and some of them were just gorgeous. Here are a few of my favorites-
This page is from a gigantic codex printed in 1493 known as the Nuremberg Chronicle. Back then, Nuremberg was a very wealthy city, so in order to commemorate their anniversary they decided to commission a history of the world up until that point. The drawings here are wood-cuts, and the color ink was added later.
This is a page from the Chronicle illustrating the city of Salzburg at the time. There are several such cities depicted in the book as you page through it (which, trust me, I did quite a bit of even if my Latin's too rusty to read it), but paradoxically the illustrations of the cities are only loosely based off of what they actually looked like- an artist would sort of work off of travelers' descriptions and the like. The same applies to all illustrations of people except that was an even less exact art, as they'd often reuse pictures and the like. I suppose such details did not matter quite so much over 500 years ago.
This is the last page in the book, and is a map of the world up until then (or at least the parts that mattered to Nurembergians). Kinda nifty.

By the way, I will point out that there were an estimated 1400-1500 Latin and 700-1000 German copies published in 1493, and an estimated 400 Latin and 300 German copies still survive. So if you don't feel a bit of excitement at the chance to flip through one of these, well, you're clearly not nerdy enough.
Change in books, this one being an illustration from Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica ("On the Fabric of the Human Body"), regarded as the world's first anatomy book. For those of you who perhaps haven't heard of him, Vesalius was a contemporary of Copernicus who was the first to say anatomy should be done in a systematic way instead of just relying on what the book said. This book was published in 1543 (and this copy is from that year as well), and it really is cool to page through because it's filled with skeletons and people with only muscles and the like idling in the Tuscan countryside.
Now this is exciting- it's the Dialogues! Also known as Dialogo Sopra I Due Massimi Sistemi Del Mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) and written by Galileo Galilei in 1632, the book was basically a conversation between a person who believed in the Aristotelian model of the universe and one who believed the Copernical model. It was written in Italian so the ordinary person could understand it, and was the book that made the Church go after Galileo and get it placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. This particular version of the book dates to 1699.

Personally I like the Dialogues because it is, in essence, the first "popular science" book ever published that I can really think of, meaning Galileo was the sort of Carl Sagan of his era. Also, interestingly enough, I have a friend who did the astronomy summer school last year run by the Vatican, and she says that if you go through the Vatican's library they have first editions of everything (of course) and they were supposed to black out the "objectionable" parts, but some kind soul either missed that memo or just never did. Hooray for science!
Not to sound odd, but I know a good number of people who would feel more reverence looking at this one than they would looking at a copy of the Bible. It is a copy of Sir Isaac Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687 (though this one is from 1739). It is from this book that Newton worked out his famous laws that laid the groundwork for classical mechanics and his theory of gravitation, and promptly doomed several centuries of university students to drawing free-body diagrams.
And if Principia isn't good enough for you, few can resist the allure of Optiks, first published in 1704 (this here being a second edition from 1717). You know how Newton split light with a prism to reveal a rainbow? Well that's in this book.

Of course, my favorite optical experiment Newton conducted (in a "my God this guy was something" sort of way) is that he once stuck a darning needle into his eye in an attempt to prove that color was the result of pressure on your eye, sticking it all the way through. Clearly the experiment didn't work as he'd imagined, but luckily he didn't lose his vision.
This last picture here is from one of the figures added in at the back of the book (as that's where all the figures were in this age- you folded them out). You can see Newton detailing how light split from the prism and how you could use geometry to figure out your prism's properties and what not.

I could go on as I have many, many more books to share (such as first editions from philosophers Henry More and John Locke), but this is getting long enough so I think I'll end things here. Isn't it cool to see and learn about old stuff?

Light Skiing: Brandywine and Seven Springs

I've said before that I don't really like the Ohio winter because it's cold and dreary and you can't bike everywhere. To be fair though, all this would be forgiven in my mind if there was one decent-sized hill anywhere in the area because then you could at least go skiing or sledding or commit other friction-defying acts of winter mayhem, but there really aren't so we have to make do with what we have. So it goes.

Anyway, last week we had off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day so to celebrate our free day a few of us decided to go skiing. My friend, Alison, lives about 40 minutes outside Cleveland near the tiny ski area called Brandywine, and has connections that let us get free ski tickets. Hooray! As you can't beat free, a few of us headed out to Brandywine to spend an afternoon of skiing. It was a fair bit below freezing (in case you haven't detected a general trend in this observation) but the sun was out and blazing, and that can make all the difference.

So how tiny is Brandywine anyway? Well here's the view from the top-
Ok to be fair, that doesn't really tell you much, so here's the view from the bottom-
Realize at this point that the first picture includes the top part of the second picture, and there you have the entire vertical (which I think is about 250 feet, compared to nearly ten times that at a place like Wildcat, NH). What you're looking at here is the "black diamond" run of the resort that probably has the same inclination as a more difficult intermediate trail nearly anywhere else, and would be decent if it wasn't over in 15 seconds. I kept running an experiment to see if I could go down the whole thing without turning once, and would've succeeded except I was on rental skis and wasn't sure if I could trust them to abruptly stop as quickly as my own skis do.

Anyway, in our group three of the five were beginning skiers so luckily that only left two of us to commiserate about the lack of difficulty. We ended up doing the terrain park of sorts several times, except paradoxically you didn't have enough hill to do more than perhaps one jump of the five or six so you just coasted over the man-made ridges to make things interesting after your one jump. Somehow, this left something to be desired, but we still had fun hanging out and since it's not like I had to pay for the privilege of my lift ticket I suppose I should stop complaining. After all, it's not Ohio's fault that it's not, say, Colorado.

The interesting thing about skiing last week, by the way, is I actually went twice in one week! Yay! This doesn't happen too often due to a combination of work and geography, but I went home to Pittsburgh this past weekend and convinced my mom and dad it would be a great idea if we spent Sunday at Seven Springs (about an hour to the east of Pittsburgh). Seven Springs isn't exactly a giant mountain either if we're looking at vertical, but at 750 feet it's got Brandywine beat by a decent shot so it was fun. It was actually around the freezing point, and snowing-
It was fun to ski at Seven Springs because I used to go there several times every season right until I left for uni (I started skiing when I was 5 years old), so this was my first time skiing there in four years. The only annoying part about the whole thing was there were quite a few snowboarders who didn't know what they were doing- I don't mind snowboarders who are actually in control and are not idiots (no, really! I swear!) but there's something about boarders who go on trails too difficult for their skill level and scrape off all the good snow that really annoys me. (Such as the lack of good snow that there wasn't much of to begin with.) Now it really is kind of comical to be heading down a difficult run only to have snowboarders falling to the right and left of you, but this starts to become a lot less funny when one of them runs into you.

Yes, you read that last bit right. I was heading down my very last run when there was a Snowboarder Dude who was out of control and barreling down the slope, and boarded right across the top of my skis. Luckily I'm good enough at this to regain my balance and not fall when someone does something so asinine as run into me because he literally can't control his own actions, but Snowboarder Dude paid for this by falling head over heels a fair fraction of the slope before stopping. After noting to myself that he was all right I went past him without stopping, because to be fair I don't want to socialize with anyone who just hit me. I noticed later that he scratched up the top of my skis pretty well, too, so it's probably best I wasn't near him when I discovered that detail.

But anyway, to finish off I will note that I brought my skis and ski stuff back to Cleveland so anyone who wants to make a foray to one of the little places around here should let me know! And as my joke of the day, here's something my high school physics teacher used to tell me whenever I mentioned skiing while he was around-

Q: Why are skiers like crack addicts?
A: Because it's all they think about, all they talk about, all they do on weekends, they're obsessed with white powder, and it's going to kill them eventually.

Ski Gunstock! (and Killington)

As some people know, I have a minor obsession about skiing that runs in the family. It's just so much fun to slide down a mountain in the fresh air! This year my family spent a few days skiing in New Hampshire and Vermont before driving back home from my cousin's wedding, so here's the second batch of pictures from that occasion.

The second place we skied was Gunstock, a nice little mountain that has got to have the best view of any ski resort anywhere. This is because it's right on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, the very large lake my family loves to visit, and here's a picture of it from our place-
(By the way, in this picture the water is actually frozen ice that happened to freeze like that, and that little dot is one of the first ice fishermen of the season!)

As a result of that, the awesome thing about skiing on Gunstock is all you do the entire way down is drink in the view-
My pictures don't quite capture it (it was still pretty cold, and my camera doesn't like functioning well in subzero temperatures) but trust me, it was gorgeous. Interestingly, this picture looks back to the spot where I took the first picture from toward the left and back from that large-ish island (Bear Island), as one of those littlish islands is the one I am forever taking pictures of in front of our house.
Here's my brother, Patrick, standing at the top of Gunstock. Before I forget to mention, the other interesting thing about this resort is all the runs have ammunition-related names, such as Trigger, Pistol, and Six Shooter. (And at Wildcat, detailed in an earlier post, everything is named after kitties.) I suppose the Second Amendment is alive and well at this place.

Anyway, for our very last day we decided to leave early and drive to Killington, Vermont and spending the night somewhere after the day of skiing there. Killington is the biggest ski resort on the East Coast and I'd only skied there once before, so I was really excited to see what it would be like, but unfortunately I was a bit disappointed. See, we'd been spoiled on days prior by incredible snow in New Hampshire, as there had been a large snowstorm just a few days beforehand, but Killington apparently didn't get a lot of that snow and was very icy as a result. Combine that with the blustery weather, people saying it wasn't icy at all for Killington (you mean you normally need ice skates?), and very expensive ski tickets (I think it was $70 per person, whereas the little NH resorts were maybe $25 max) mean I'm probably not going to go out of my way to go there again when there are so many other great places in the area. (To be fair, it's not like I paid for my own lift ticket as I was there with my family, but this is something to keep in mind should I end up as a poor graduate student in New England.)

One thing I really liked about Killington though was the fact that the wind had turned all the trees into "powdered sugar" as my family calls it- you know, when the pine trees are so coated in snow that it looks like they're made of candy. Absolutely gorgeous! So here's me acting a bit macho on the edge of a precipice with a grove of powdered sugar pine trees in the background.

We're Back

Clearly, I've been out of it. Sorry about that, it's been a busy and hectic beginning-of-spring-semester. Of course I am using the term "spring" lightly, as yesterday it was at least -10C on my walk to school with the wind making it feel a good several degrees less than that, so what little of my face showed felt either painful or numb (I have a rule about not biking when it never gets above freezing during the day). Can't say I like the Ohio winter very much...

Anyway, been keeping busy with summer applications, turning 22 (and we went to see Avenue Q!), skiing (more on this later), class, and things of that nature. There is also a new Quarked column titled "Form Letter for Presidential Candidates" to read through... And with that, I will upload my large backlog of pictures and try to get some order in them so I can share them with you all. Cheers!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Last Days of Break

So much to talk about, but being lazy takes up so much time...

Until I stop being a bum enjoying my last few free days of leisure reading and crossword puzzles, take a look at the JYI "Science Year of 2007 in Review" article series (also known as the "no one wanted to write a huge article in December so we combined forces" series). It's pretty well done, and I have a contribution if you keep an eye out for it.

See you in a bit once I'm back in the snowfields of Cleveland and have nothing better to do!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Happy New Year! As of right now it is COLD in NH: the mercury is set at 8F last I checked (about 3pm), meaning today we took a break from skiing as no one was really gung-ho about skiing when it'd be 10 degrees colder than that. Yesterday was fun though: it was a balmy 15F at the base of Wildcat Mountain where we went, so here is my brother, sister, and me with Mount Washington in the background. My sister's the one in white, I'm the one in light blue, and my brother's the one in red. Gorgeous day and lots of great snow, even if it was on the nippy side, hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Best part of skiing yesterday: skiing with the several inches of fresh powder on the ground, which is great because this part of the country usually just has icy crud. Worst part: my brother was cutting across a trail to another one, going past a tiny chute called "The Elevator Shaft" correctly but deciding to cut down later on what must be known as "The Elevator Shaft That Never Passed Building Code Regulations." Must've been an old hiking trail it was that narrow... anyway, as it turns out, you can successfully go down a narrow black-diamond-steep chute if you strategically ram yourself into snowbanks that grew up around trees in an "I've skied 15 years so I know what I'm doing" manner. The things I check out so you don't have to...
Anyway, I'll leave you with this picture of the island in front of my family's NH place as it looked earlier today: most of the lake is frozen (though I wouldn't walk out too far yet) but it doesn't really freeze much here due to an underground spring. Give the ice another few weeks, though, and it will be covered in little fishing huts, some of which take the word 'little' to amazingly large places, and ice sailboats that go as fast as a car on the highway. New Hampshire is a fun place in the wintertime, even if it's a bit nippy out.