The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, a century on

The Hertzsprung–Russell (H–R) diagram was developed around a century ago by the Danish chemist and astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung (during 1909–1911) and the American astronomer Henry Russell (during 1910–1913). The H–R diagram has been called “arguably the most famous diagram in the history of astronomy.”

The H–R diagram plots stars by their spectral class, colour, or effective surface temperature (horizontally) and their absolute magnitude or luminosity (vertically). The diagram not only revealed some intriguing patterns, but hinted at a theory about the life story of stars. It remains an important teaching and visualisation tool to this day.

This version of the H–R diagram is from Richard Powell at the Atlas of the Universe. It plots data on a set of 23,000 stars.

Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks was the botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his 1768–1771 voyage to Australia and the South Pacific. The genus Banksia is named in his honour – the Banksia integrifolia above is one example of the genus, and is taken from Banks’ botanical work, the Florilegium, which is partially available online at the Natural History Museum in London.

The artwork in this book is largely thanks to Sydney Parkinson, the artist who accompanied Banks (his self-portrait is below). Working under difficult conditions, Parkinson produced 943 botanical drawings (including 269 finished watercolours), but died of fever on the voyage back from Australia (he was only 25). A number of artists in England completed what this young hero of botany had begun, allowing the rest of the world to experience some of Australia’s unique and bizarre flora. Thank you, Sydney.

LEGO and Chemistry

Here is an interesting educational use of LEGO® which I have not seen before – molecular models (full details in the PDF file here).

See also this post by “supercatfish” for a slightly more complex example, involving burning propane (which I discussed in my kitchen chemistry post series).

Kitchen chemistry: Melting and boiling

Previous kitchen chemistry posts have discussed solids, liquids, and gases. Molecules in a solid are fixed in place within a structure, like the carbon dioxide molecules in this crystal of “dry ice”:

These molecules vibrate in place, and as the temperature increases, they vibrate faster (indeed, that’s what temperature means). In most solids (“dry ice” is an exception), there comes a point where the molecules break loose from the solid structure (though still being held down by gravity) – this is called melting, and produces a liquid. As the temperature increases even further, the molecules vibrate even faster. Eventually, gravity no longer holds them down, and they fly around in all directions – this is called boiling, and produces a gas.

Generally speaking, the heavier molecules are, the harder it is to get them to break loose and fly away. Heavier molecules therefore tend to have higher melting and boiling points. Among hydrocarbons, for example, propane is a gas at room temperature (room temperature is marked by a dashed line in the chart below). Octane (C8H18), found in petrol (gasoline), is a liquid at room temperature. Hentriacontane, with 31 carbon atoms (C31H64), is a waxy solid:

Melting and boiling points

The chart shows some exceptions, however. Water molecules and ethanol (alcohol) molecules are very light, but they tend to “stick” to each other, and this means that water and ethanol are liquids at room temperature.

In water, for example, the oxygen atom (red in the model below) carries a slight negative electrical charge, while the hydrogen atoms (white below) carry a slight positive electrical charge. Because of the same phenomenon that allows static electricity on a recently used comb to attract small scraps of paper, the oxygen atom on one water molecule is attracted to the hydrogen atoms on other water molecules. This “stickiness” means that it takes more heat to make the water molecules fly away.

Armed with a good thermometer, the home experimenter can verify that water boils at 100 °C (place the thermometer in a saucepan of boiling water) and freezes at 0 °C (place the thermometer in a cup of water which is in turn placed in a bucket of salt and crushed ice, and see at what temperature the water starts to freeze – the same method can be used to find the freezing point of different kinds of oil, and even to make home-made ice cream). Alternatively, put the thermometer in a cup of ice, and see at what temperature the ice starts to melt.

Marie Curie and homeschooling

Marie Curie, Jean Perrin, and Paul Langevin

After her husband’s death, the great scientist Marie Curie homeschooled her eldest daughter for two years, in a group with nine other children. Marie Curie introduced the children to physics on Thursday afternoons, while the other parents taught other subjects. Marie Curie’s friend and neighbour Jean Perrin (who won the Nobel in 1926) taught chemistry. Paul Langevin (who won the Copley Medal in 1940) taught mathematics. Henri Mouton taught biology, the sculptor Jean Magrou taught art, and Mme Isabel Chavannes taught foreign languages (German and English). Mme Henriette Perrin taught French literature and history, as well as leading visits to the wonderful Musée du Louvre.

The Louvre in 1904

The youngest Curie daughter, in a biography of her mother, writes: “Her disciples—some of whom were future scientists—were to retain a dazzling memory of these fascinating lessons, of her familiarity and kindness. Thanks to her, the abstract and boring phenomena of the manuals were most picturesquely illustrated: bicycle ball-bearings, dipped in ink, were left on an inclined plane where, describing a parabola, they verified the law of falling bodies. A clock inscribed its regular oscillations on smoked paper. A thermometer, constructed and graduated by the pupils, consented to operate in agreement with the official thermometers, and the children were immensely proud of it.

Marie Curie is, of course, an impossible act to follow, but parents interested in doing something similar might find my ongoing kitchen chemistry post series helpful.

Terra by Richard Hamblyn: a book review

Terra, by Richard Hamblyn

A while back I read with fascination, and a touch of horror, Richard Hamblyn’s Terra – Tales of the Earth: Four Events That Changed the World – a well-written and interesting book. Organised around the themes of earth, air, fire, and water, it describes the 1755 earthquake that levelled Lisbon, the 1783 cloud of dust that choked Europe, the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, and the 1946 tsunami that struck Hilo in Hawaii. A reminder not to take the Earth for granted.

Later tsunamis get a very brief mention, along with (then) ten-year-old Tilly Smith, who saved a hundred people in Thailand in 2004, because she had paid attention to her schoolteacher when tsunamis were discussed in class.

Ruins of Convento do Carmo in Lisbon, destroyed in 1755 (photo by Chris Adams); eruption of Krakatau

This is a book for both science buffs and history buffs, with many primary sources being quoted. I gave this one four stars.

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Terra, by Richard Hamblyn: 4 stars