Archive for January, 2015

Jupiter Moon Discovered!

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015


Philibert Jacques Melotte discovered one of Jupiter’s satellites!

In 1908!

But why should the fact that it happened more than a century ago make it any less exciting?

Melotte’s discovery of Jupiter VIII a/k/a 1908 CJ a/k/a Poseidon doesn’t conform to our popular notion of scientific discoveries as definitive Hollywood-ready “eureka” moments. (Though his winning the medal from the Royal Astronomical Society makes a great scene.)

According to his 1962 obituary in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Melotte’s “eureka” moment happened, well, methodically.

Was that blot of light an asteroid, a satellite, a roving bit of cheese? Melotte didn’t want to make the call right away. In fact, his first notation described the unknown satellite as a “moving object.” Melotte took pains to review the data and document the satellite via a series of photographic images. Once he had confirmed his findings, the date of his discovery was sort of retroactive, because – eureka! – the image had first shown up on January 27th! And it wasn’t until decades later that Jupiter VIII received its mythological name, Pasiphaë, after the mother of the (part-man/part-bull/don’t ask) Minotaur.

So here’s a hearty congratulations to Philibert Jacques Melotte (belated).

Geology Rocks!

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

William Maclure wrote Observations on the Geology of the United States, published on January 20, 1809 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.

Maclure is known as the “Father of American Geology,” not least because he single-handedly mapped nearly every state and published the first geological map of the U.S. – a remarkable feat, considering that even England did not have a geological map yet.

Besides “Father of American Geology,” Maclure is also known as the “William Smith of America” – as in William “Strata” Smith, the guy who was the first to publish a geographical map of England.

Sorry, “Strata.” Turns out you are the “William Maclure of England.”

Alchemists on a Short Leash

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

On January 13, 1404, The Act of Multipliers was passed by the English Parliament to prevent unscrupulous alchemists from making too much gold. And no wonder.

With the acquisition of a Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemist could turn base metals into precious metals and not only enrich himself, but cause untold economic mischief.

To put the problem in perspective, it would take just a single alchemist to destroy the English economy – not to mention making their enemies invincible if he or she (who are we kidding? it’s a he) provided foreigners with the cure-all Elixir of Life made with wine and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Parliament’s hands were tied. They had to prevent alchemists from undermining the financial stability of the nation – and perhaps the world.

Needless to say, alchemists and their important work suffered. For nearly three hundred years, they were forced to practice in secret or risk felony charges. Though King Henry VI issued patents for the practice of alchemy, it wasn’t until 1689 that the Act was repealed, owing to the efforts of Robert Boyle (a chemist) and Sir Isaac Newton (a fig).

We will never know just how much alchemy the Act Against Multipliers denied the world.


Alchemists at their dangerous work.


Free-Wheeling Women of 1896

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

January 6, 1896 was the beginning of the big bike race at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City and, according to the New York Times, “The reception given the riders was as frosty as that which the Frost King gave the general public yesterday.” The next day, the Times waspishly reported “The attempt to run a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden, with a lot of females as contestants, has not proved a phenomenal success…” (Low attendance may have been due to temperatures reaching three degrees below zero; in fact, the record set the next day wasn’t broken until 2014.)

Of course, “success” for six-day races was measured in the number of tickets sold as spectators crowded around the track to watch exhausted participants fall on their faces. The low turn-out may have been owing to the contemporary view of women athletes, i.e. that those who undertake childbirth and dangerous underpaid factory work might be too physically fragile to go without sleep and withstand the physical exertion of bike racing.

Truthfully, these events could be a little brutal owing to exploding tires, collisions, sprains, broken ribs, contusions, lacerations, and the inevitable accidents that followed accidents: “two or three of the riders struck him as he rolled to the bottom of the track.”

Accounts of six-day races in the Times from the late 1890s to the early ‘teens describe races that left participants “Dazed and groggy,” “badly cut and bruised,” amidst rumors of “temporary aberrations of the mind.” These grueling events necessitated “the transfer of [riders] from bicycle competitors to the less exciting position of hospital patients.”

Citing the injuries, drug use among riders, and other “disgusting features” of long races, one of the City’s aldermen proposed an ordinance in 1904 that was “aimed directly at the six-day bicycle races at the Garden.” But the races were just too popular.

“The crowd came early and stayed late,” the Times reported of one men’s race in 1915. “It was a noisy, shouting, singing crowd, which paid little attention to the tired, pale riders on the track…” You know what they say: some people only go to see the accidents.

However, back in 1896, the audience for the first women’s six-day bike race picked up at the end, even if it did not make a fortune for the promoters. The Times admitted – if not graciously – that an audiences did materialize for the last day of the race on January 12, 1896 “and, strange to relate, there were fully 4,000 persons present.” Despite the shattering of several records, The League of American Wheelman, “which stands for all that is best in cycle racing, does not countenance contests between females.” Indeed.

In February of 1896, legendary reporter for The World, Nelly Bly, interviewed Susan B. Anthony. “Yes, I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling,” [Susan B. Anthony] said, leaning forward and laying a hand on my arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

Of course, that might have been the endorphins talking.