350 years ago on Friday

On 26 May 1667, Abraham de Moivre was born. This French mathematician gave us, inter alia, the formula named after him:

De Moivre was born to French Protestant parents. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked, he was imprisoned for his beliefs for several years, after which he was allowed to leave for England. De Moivre made important contributions to probability theory, and was a pioneer of analytic geometry. Sadly, he was unable to get a university position in England, and he died in poverty.


Looking back: 1978

In 1978 I started senior high school (year 11 and 12). That was a year of terrorism – a bomb was exploded outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel by the Ananda Marga group (apparently in an attempt to kill Indian prime minister Morarji Desai), and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro (below) was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades. On a more positive note, John Paul II became the first Polish pope, and helped to chip away at the power of the Soviet Union.

That year also marked the debut of the soap opera Dallas and the comic strip Garfield. In science, James Christy at the United States Naval Observatory discovered Pluto’s moon Charon. We finally got a good look at it in 2015:

In computing, the Turing Award went to Robert Floyd, for his work in programming languages and algorithms. Intel introduced the 8086, the first of the x86 microprocessors which are still the most common CPUs in personal computers and laptops today. The game Space Invaders also had its debut:

The year 1978 also saw the release of the unsatisfactory animated version of The Lord of the Rings, and a number of interesting albums, including The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, Pyramid by The Alan Parsons Project, Dire Straits by the band of the same name, the electronic Équinoxe by Jean Michel Jarre, and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds:

Of the books published that year, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the exceedingly dark The House of God by Samuel Shem, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (below) stand out.


Harp History

After some feedback on my harp twins post, I thought I’d say something about the history of the harp. It’s one of the oldest musical instruments (following the flute and the drum). Harps are known to go back to 3500 BC, in Ur. Harp design has varied considerably over the 5500 years since then.


Harpist depicted on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BC

Later harps were of particular importance to the Celtic people, and the harp is still a symbol of Ireland today.


The medieval Queen Mary harp, c. 1400s (photo: David Monniaux)

A limitation of harps has been that the strings correspond only to the white keys on the piano. A significant improvement was the pedal harp – initially the single-action version, and from 1810 the double-action version. The double-action pedal harp is typically tuned to C major, the key of 7 flats. There are 7 pedals, with e.g. the C pedal connecting to all the C strings. Using the pedal can effectively shorten all the strings in this group to give either C or C (and the same for other groups of notes).

Child prodigy Alisa Sadikova playing the pedal harp (at age 9)

The pedal harp is the main concert instrument today. Garrison Keillor once described the instrument as “an instrument for a saint” because “it takes fourteen hours to tune a harp, which remains in tune for about twenty minutes, or until somebody opens the door.”


A modern electric lever harp (photo:Athy)

Smaller harps (including modern electric harps, like the one above) use levers to modify individual strings (which makes key changes much more difficult than with the pedal harp). Electric harps weighing up to 8 kg are described as “wearable,” which reminds me a little of this 11 kg grand-daddy of the laptop.

Camille and Kennerly Kitt playing “wearable” electric harps

The harp is often seen as a stereotypically feminine instrument – when I look at American harpists on Wikipedia, I count 10 men and 60 women. There are, however, exceptions.

Jakez François (president of French company Camac Harps) playing jazz


Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.


In praise of the codex


Charles Emmanuel Biset, Still life with Books, a Letter and a Tulip

The codex (book with pages) has been with us for about 2,000 years now. Because of advantages like rapid access to specific pages, it gradually replaced the older technology of the scroll:

Christians seem to have been early adopters of the codex technology. The oldest known fragment of the Christian New Testament, papyrus P52, dated to around the year 130, is a small fragment of a codex of the Gospel according to John (with parts of verses 18:31–33 on one side of the page, and parts of verses 18:37–38 on the other):

In 2010, Google estimated that the total number of published books had reached 130 million. At times it seems that e-books are taking over from the printed codex format, but there is a friendliness to the printed book that would make me sorry to see it go. I am not the only one.

Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, writes: “Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a marvelous machine – great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand.

How true that is!


I ♥ science books!


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