Looking back: 1989

In 1989, I started my first lecturing job, at Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. My PhD was all but finished and – more importantly – my scholarship money had run out. That was the year that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had discovered cold fusion. They had not. I’m glad that I was being more careful in my own work.


Griffith University’s bushland setting (photo: Tate Johnson)

Konrad Lorenz, William Shockley, and Andrei Sakharov all died in 1989, while Isamu Akasaki developed the now-ubiquitous GaN-based blue LED. Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, the Tiananmen Square protests took place, the Berlin Wall came down, George Bush became President of the USA, and the Soviet–Afghan War ended (Bush’s son was to start his own Afghan war in 2001).


William Shockley in 1975 (photo: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service)

The spaceprobe Voyager 2 (launched in 1977) visited Neptune in 1989, and took some lovely photographs.


Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989

In the world of cinema, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Fabulous Baker Boys were released. Books of 1989 included The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. An interesting year, on the whole.


Poster for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Blue Jeans and Culture

An earlier post touched on the concept of “cultural appropriation.” This label is often applied inappropriately, because the world is more interconnected than most people realise. It has been that way for longer than most people realise (for example, some 4,000 years ago, tin from England was being traded across the Mediterranean sea for use in making bronze). And ideas go back further than most people realise.

As Michael Crichton says in his excellent novel Timeline, “Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of the market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

Consider blue jeans, for example.

Blue jeans are dyed with indigotin, a chemical derived from the indigo plant, which has long been grown in India. But before someone says “cultural appropriation from India,” indigotin was traditionally derived in Europe from the woad plant (northern Britons painted their skins blue with woad). In China, a different plant was used. Essentially, the use of indigotin was a cultural universal. In Germany, where a culture of excellence in organic chemistry grew up during the 19th century, a practical method for making synthetic indigotin was developed at the BASF company in 1897, and the choice of plant became moot.


A cake of indigo dye (photo: David Stroe)

Blue jeans are made from denim, a fabric named after Nîmes in France. During the California gold rush, Levi Strauss, a Jewish-American businessman of German origin, teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Jewish-American tailor of Latvian origin, to make denim work clothing for miners. These blue jeans were strengthened by metal rivets – an idea due to Davis, patented in 1873.

So which culture produced blue jeans – Indian? French? German? Latvian? Jewish? American? One can only say that blue jeans were produced by human culture.


Illustration from the patent application


Solar Car Racing in Egypt: Update

Time for an update on the Somabay Egyptian Solar Challenge. Scrutineering was due to have begun, but apparently all the cars are still held up in customs. Hopefully the race itself will still start on the 17th. Apparently the route will run north and south along the Red Sea shore for four days, and finish at the Pyramids of Giza on the fifth day.

With luck, we will get some news from mostdece during the race, because the official Twitter and Facebook feeds are not saying much. The following three teams have active news feeds:

DE  Bochum University of Applied Sciences 

Bochum are putting up very detailed daily blog posts (in German) at bosolarcar.de/themen/news. Their local partners from Cairo University are active on Facebook (and, amazingly, auto-translate works well).

FR  Eco Solar Breizh 

This Breton team is active on Facebook and Twitter (click on the icons above).

NL  Nuon Solar Team 

Nuon is extremely active on Twitter, posting news, pictures, and short videos.

Update 1: apparently the race organisers have no permit to conduct the race as planned. The race will therefore be reduced to a 2-day event, running laps around the Somabay resort complex.

Update 2: Nuon has a report on the event here.


Disasters in science #2

This “meme” is intended to underscore the fact that engineers have a moral obligation to take great care with safety-related issues. As Kipling says, “It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.


Girl, flaunt those hoops!

American private liberal arts colleges constantly seem to be in the news (not, unfortunately, for their educational successes). Pitzer College, located in Claremont, California (and ranked 44th among liberal arts colleges in the United States by Times Higher Education), recently made the news when a college Resident Assistant announced that “white girls” should not wear hoop earrings.


Left: Greek hoop earring with lion head, 4th century BC; Right: Italian (Lombard) hoop earring with basket, 7th century AD

The strange thing is that hoop earrings are almost a cultural universal. They have been worn across the world, including in Europe and the Middle East. And not just by “girls” with skin of various colours – men have worn them too.

I must also say I’m grateful that the Greeks haven’t stopped the rest of the world from “cultural appropriation” of their philosophy, mathematics, and democratic ideals.


Left: Croatian hoop earring, 14th century AD; Right: Egyptian hoop earring, Roman Period or later