Friday, July 24, 2009

Happy 96th Birthday to a Pioneering Biochemist

Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing (by phone) the groundbreaking biochemist, Mildred Cohn, who lives in an apartment in Philadelphia. The reason was to gather information for an article I wrote about physics in Philadelphia. I had just found out that Cohn's late husband was the well-known American physicist Henry Primakoff. She was gracious in answering my questions about her husband's career. Only later did I find out that Mildred Cohn is a pioneering scientist in her own right, an expert in enzymes who had worked with nuclear chemist Harold Urey. Throughout her career, she has helped young women chemists get their start. She continues to contribute to the history of chemistry through her recollections archived by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Cohn turned 96 on July 12. Happy 96th Birthday to a pioneering scientist!

Here is a link to more information about her work:
Mildred Cohn Biography

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Twittering Minister

Imagine posting a message on a blog or on the microblogging site Twitter about a government official and having him respond directly back to you within an hour. That's what happened yesterday when writer P D Smith (who reviews for the Guardian and maintains various blogs) posted a "tweet" about Lord Paul Drayson, British Science Minister and race car driver. While Drayson was preparing for a big race in France he saw the tweet, posted back and kept the conversation going. Smith's account of what transpired is posted here: The Man from the Ministry The story has appeared in various news venues including: The Times Online: Science Minister Takes to Twitter

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Physics in Philadelphia

[This is an advanced excerpt of an article I will be publishing in June, called Philadelphia: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Physics (to appear in Physics in Perspective).]

Philadelphia's downtown district, called Center City, is laid out in a grid pattern with four squares. Interestingly, three of these squares, Logan, Franklin and Rittenhouse, have some association with physics.

James Logan was secretary to William Penn when Pennsylvania was founded. He was a lover of books and interested in all manner of scholarly topics, including physics. In 1709 Logan purchased a copy of the first edition of Newton’s Principia, and later he also acquired copies of the second and third editions, thus playing a pivotal role in introducing Newton’s work to the colonies. During a trip to London in 1710, Logan witnessed Newton performing an experiment before an audience at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Benjamin Franklin made monumental contributions to the physics of electricity. In 1746, the London merchant and Fellow of the Royal Society Peter Collinson sent Franklin a package containing a glass tube used in electrostatic experiments and an article by the Swiss naturalist Albrecht von Haller describing current knowledge in the field, which sparked Franklin’s interest and led him to embark upon an intensive investigation of electricity. Franklin went on to define the concept of positive and negative charge, to establish that electrical attraction and repulsion of materials can act over a distance and not only by contact, and to enunciate the idea of conservation of charge. The most famous of Franklin’s experiments, however, was his lightning-kite experiment in 1752 in which he proved that lightning consists of an electrical discharge.

David Rittenhouse, as a child, demonstrated great mathematical and scientific aptitude, studying Newton’s Principia in English translation, building mechanical devices, and establishing his reputation as a maker of clocks and instruments on the family farm in Norriton, about twenty miles north of Philadelphia. His primary scientific field of study was astronomy, and in 1767 he built an orrery (solar system model) using Kepler’s laws as a guide. In 1769 he gained recognition as a leading member of the American Philosophical Society by using a refracting telescope he had made to measure the exact time of the transit of Venus. He also constructed the first diffraction grating.

So we see that three of Philadelphia's squares have a connection with physics. The next time you are in Philadelphia and find yourself passing Logan's Square's fountain, watching Franklin Square's carousel, or enjoying the sculpture in Rittenhouse Square you may wish to think about the accomplishments of their namesakes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Passing of a Great Historian of Science

I was saddened to read that one of the great historians of science, Martin J. Klein of Yale University, passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He was a very down to earth and generous man, and was gracious in offering advice for one of my books. The first volume (of a planned two volume set) of a biography he wrote about physicist Paul Ehrenfest is a classic. (He never completed the second volume because he it was becoming too depressing for him to dwell on Ehrenfest's tragic final years.) Klein was also instrumental in the Einstein papers project and was the first recipient of the Pais Prize for the History of Physics. I remember him as a kindly, gray-mustached figure who was almost always surrounded by adoring former students.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Essay Contest Results

The results of the "Nature of Time" essay competition have been posted.

There are many luminaries among the winners, including first-place winner Julian Barbour, an independent researcher who lives near Oxford.

If you are interested in reading any of the winning essays, including my own essay "The Garden of Forking Paths" (which I am delighted to announce has won a fourth juried prize) here is a link:

The Nature of Time Essay Competition Results