Category Archives: Beary Scientist

Les Globes du Roi-Soleil

The Coronelli Globes were designed in Paris between 1681 and 1683 by the Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli and were destined to be offered to King Louis XIV by the Cardinal Duke d’Estrées. Objects of science and symbols of power, they show a synthesis representation of the Earth and the sky. Exceptional in size, these are the two most monumental pieces held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. They have been a part of the collection since the 18th century, yet remained rarely shown until their permanent installation in 2006.

Coronelli did not become rich from the commission to make the Globes. Cardinal Duke d’Estrées, the French ambassador to Rome, paid Coronelli 46,000 pounds for the Globes. It is said that Coronelli estimated their cost of production to be 100,000 pounds. However, Coronelli was able to use the new knowledge his team generated in the research and production of the great globes to produce his groundbreaking engraved world atlas which earned him enduring fame and substantial income. He was named Cosmographer of the Serenissima Republic of Venice.

Colbert, the king’s powerful adviser, devised the idea for the great Globes. Originally the Coronelli Globes were intended for installation at Versailles, but this never came to pass. Colbert died the year the Globes were completed, and instead, they were installed at the Château de Marly in Yvelines in 1704. Having been entrusted by Louis XIV to the Royal Library, and thus taken out of his palace, the globes escaped destruction at the time of the French Revolution.

Some interesting figures: The dimensions of each globe are 3.84 meters in diameter and 11.6 meters around the circumference, and each globe weighs in at a robust 1,500 kg.

The celestial globe shows all constellations known to man at the time of its design, pointing the planets at their actual positions on the day the Roi-Soleil was born, on September 5th 1638. On the azure of the sky or on the dark blue of the constellations evocative of a night sky, 1,880 stars are visible, in the form of sun-shaped gilded bronze studs. Their size varies depending on the stars’ brightness, according to a classification by Copernicus.

The Celestial Globe

The celestial globe is inspired by the Ptolemaic system. At the centre of the globe, the Earth, fixed in its position, is at the heart of the Universe, while the sphere of the fixed stars rotates around it in 24 hours, moving from East to West. Seventy-two constellations appear on the globe. In addition to the forty-eight constellations described by Ptolemy (90-168), there are those introduced more recently thanks to improvements in lenses or on the basis of observations made by navigators from the Southern hemisphere, such as those observed by Mercator (1512-1594) and Petrus Plancius from 1551 to 1613.

Animals and characters cover the surface of the globe. Ursa Magna (the Great Bear), Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Lyra (the harp), Perseus and the head of Medusa in the North, Crux (the Southern Cross), Centauras (the centaur), Hydrus (the water snake), Argo Navis (the ship Argo) and Pavo (the peacock) in the South: all the constellations are represented by the allegorical figures corresponding to their shape in the sky. The style of the figures or the constellations, painted in different shades of blue, is attributed to Jean-Baptiste Corneille. The name of each constellation is written in four languages: French, Latin, Greek and Arabic.

The unusual placement of the constellations, with the characters full-face, transforms the perspective of the observer. The heavens are seen from the outside, although the Earth is supposed to be at the centre of the globe.

The comets are often represented with the date of their discovery and, more rarely, with the name of their discoverer. Sometimes, a golden tail indicates their direction.

The terrestrial globe gives a complete cartography of the world and its wealth as it was displayed in front of the Roi-Soleil at the height of his glory.

The Terrestrial Globe

Like an encyclopedia, the terrestrial globe is full of information. The cartographic outlines are enriched everywhere with calligraphic texts and painted images portraying fabulous or exotic tales.

The globe retraces the sea voyages of numerous explorers. Certain texts, like the imposing Magellan inset, recount these voyages. The images echo the voyagers’ tales, attempting to elicit curiosity and a spirit of adventure.

Large and magnificent insets attract attention to the wealth of the East and West Indies: pearl-fishing, the cinnamon of Ceylon and the resources of far-off Jesso (Japan), silver, furs, bird feathers… or the mines of New Spain.

Evocative of the ease of trade, European store ships and long boats, like the Indian carracks or the Chinese snake boats, navigate the seas without danger.

César d’Estrées’ dedication to Louis XIV extols the virtues of the sovereign. The bust of the King, crowned with laurels, dominates the gilded copper dedicatory plaque. The latter is surrounded by a series of allegorical figures, among whom Geography occupies the central position.

The exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France sets the Globes in their historical context, with a focus on the progress made in the geographical sciences. There is a specific area dedicated to the story of the Coronelli globes and another area dedicated to the progress made in astronomy and astrophysics presented by the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES).

From the Moon

The only full-body photograph of Neil Armstrong on the moon shows him working at the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” on July 20, 1969. The first man to set foot on the lunar surface was inadvertently captured on film by Buzz Aldrin, who was tasked with taking a series of panoramic photos.

At 10.56 am on 21 July 1969 Australian Western Standard Time (AWST), mankind took its ‘one giant leap’ and 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.

The CSIRO Parkes radio telescope famously supported receiving the television signals on that momentous day. Although many people think the Parkes telescope was the only station receiving the signal, it was the 26-metre antenna at NASA’s Honeysuckle Creek space tracking station near Canberra that was the prime station assigned with receiving the initial TV pictures from the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface. (The Tidbinbillla deep space tracking station, today known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, provided support to the command module in lunar orbit.)

Eight and a half minutes after those first historic images were broadcast around the world, the television signal being received by the larger 64-metre Parkes radio telescope was then selected by NASA to provide the images for the following two hours and 12 minutes of live broadcast as the Apollo 11 astronauts explored the Moon surface.

CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in 1969, around the time of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

While the Parkes telescope successfully received the signals, the occasion didn’t go without a hitch. The lunar module had landed at 4.17am AWST. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were supposed to rest before the Moonwalk, but Neil Armstrong was keen to get going. The astronauts were slow getting into their suits and when they got outside the Moon was rising over Parkes.

The telescope was fully tipped over, waiting for the Moon to rise, when a series of strong wind gusts – 110 km per hour – hit. They made the control room shudder, and slammed the telescope back against its zenith axis gears. Fortunately the wind slowed, and Buzz Aldrin activated the TV camera just as the Moon came into the telescope’s field-of-view. At this time, Honeysuckle Creek was taking the main signal. Eight minutes later the Moon was in the Parkes main detector’s field-of-view and NASA switched to Parkes. The weather was still bad, and the telescope operated well beyond its safety limits.

Inside the Parkes telescope control room during the Apollo 11 Moonwalk.

The signals received by Parkes were sent to Sydney. From there the TV signal was split. One signal went to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the other to Houston for the international telecast. The international signal had to travel halfway around the world from Sydney to Houston, adding a delay. So Australian audiences saw Neil Armstrong’s historic first step 0.3 seconds before the rest of the world.

The Australian film about the Parkes telescope, The Dish, is great entertainment, but not entirely historically accurate. In fact, many CSIRO staff were involved, at Parkes and elsewhere. Parkes staffer Neil ‘Fox’ Mason was at the control desk, guiding the telescope. Despite being at the centre of the action, he couldn’t turn around to watch the incoming pictures. Instead, he had to monitor the telescope’s tracking, in case the wind picked up again. And nobody has ever played cricket on the Dish!

Quiz master Isabelle has a few questions 🙂

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (reflected in Buzz’s visor) were the first humans to step on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong was the first astronaut to step on the moon. Who was the last astronaut to walk on the moon?
a. Michael Collins
b. Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt
c. Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan
d. Alan Shepard

What was the name of the Apollo 11 lander?
a. Falcon
b. Eagle
c. Kitty Hawk
d. Snoopy

Apollo 11 lunar module landed where on the Moon on 21 July 1969 (Australian time)?
a. Sea of Tranquillity
b. Sea of Serenity
c. Sea of Rains
d. Sea of Crises

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What did Buzz Aldrin say when he stepped on the moon?
a. “Wait for me, Neil!”
b. “Looks like the strut had a little thermal effects on it, right here Neil.”
c. “I’d like to request a few moments of silence.”
d. “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.”

The Apollo 11 mission brought back 21.5 kg of space rocks. Why are they special?
a. They are the only space rocks collected from the Moon
b. They are the oldest rocks ever found
c. They were the first rocks collected from the Moon
d. They contain chemical traces of water

This mineral was first discovered on the Moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. What is it?
a. Tanzanite
b. Armalcolite
c. Fluckite
d. Apolloite

Apollo 11’s landing computer had how much working memory (RAM)?
a. 4Kb
b. 40Kb
c. 400Kb
d. 4Mb

Approximately 600 million people watched the live broadcast of the moon walk. Which tracking station broadcast Neil Arnstrong’s first step to the world?
a. Goldstone, California
b. ‘The Dish’, Parkes, New South Wales
c. Honeysuckle Creek, Australian Capital Territory
d. Carnarvon, Western Australia

What medical phenomenon was reported by astronauts on Apollo 11 and on subsequent Apollo missions?
a. Minor hair loss
b. Animosity between crew members
c. Feelings of intense fatigue after exposure to near zero gravity
d. Seeing light flashes and streaks

Which was the last nation to land a spacecraft on the Moon?
a. US
b. Russia
c. India
d. China

Answers: c, b, a, b, c, b, a, c, d, d

Bound for the Moon

The Bell Aerosystems Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) and the astronaut Neil Armstrong (left), photographed at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California prior to the launch of Apollo 11.
Group portrait of NASA’s Apollo 11 astronauts as they pose with their families on a model of the moon, March 1969. Pictured are, at top, from left, astronaut Michael Collins, children Mike, Kate, and Ann, and his wife Pat (nee Patricia Finnegan); at left, astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr, his wife Joan, and children Mike, Jan, and Andy; at right, astronaut Neil Armstrong and his wife Jan (nee Shearon), and children Ricky and Mark.
American astronaut (and future politician) Neil Armstrong operates a flight simulator during mission training for NASA’s space program, Dallas, Texas, 1964.
The S-1C booster for the Apollo 11 Saturn V waits inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Feb. 21, 1969 (NASA)
An official portrait of Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin.
Original caption: Practicing for the Big One at Ellington A.F.B., Texas. Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong flies the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle in preparation for the lunar-landing attempt in July. The flight lasted for five minutes, during which Armstrong made two takeoffs and landings. He flew the craft to an altitude of some 300 feet.
The astronaut Buzz Aldrin paddles to the shore of Lake Texoma during training at the U.S. Air Force Air Defense Command Life Support School at Perrin Air Force Base in Sherman, Texas. He sits in a one-man life raft. He was dropped into the water after making a parasail ascent some 400 feet above the lake.
The astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take part in a geology field trip in Sierra Blanca, Texas.
Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong trains in the spacesuit he will wear on the lunar surface. A camera is attached to his chest, giving him full use of his arms; the backpack provides oxygen, pressurization, and temperature control.
The command module and service module for the Apollo 11 mission are moved to the work stand on April 1, 1969, in preparation for the first manned lunar landing.
The final checkout of the Apollo 11 lunar module takes place on April 11, 1969, in the Open Bay Area of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building at Kennedy Space Center.
A preflight photo shows Buzz Aldrin’s suit laid out in its lunar-surface configuration.
A fish-eye view of the astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as they train in a mock-up lunar module.
Buzz Aldrin (left) and Neil Armstrong train to make documented sample retrievals, suited up near a mock-up of the lunar lander in the spring of 1969.
Neil Armstrong (left) and Buzz Aldrin brief NASA managers before a training session described in the crew-training summary as a “Lunar Timeline Demo for Dr. Mueller” on April 22, 1969.
Command Module Pilot Michael Collins works inside a simulator.
The astronaut Buzz Aldrin, fully suited, gets in more training time under partially weightless conditions aboard a KC-135 aircraft from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on July 9, 1969. The moon’s gravity is about one-sixth that of Earth.
Neil Armstrong trains in a lunar-module simulator in June 1969.
The command and service modules for Apollo 11 are installed in the altitude chamber of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building at Kennedy Space Center.
The Apollo 11 crew walks past the base of the massive Saturn V first stage during a walk-through emergency-egress test.
Apollo 11 crew members pose for a photo during a walk-through egress test on June 10, 1969.
Readying for launch, a technician works atop the white room, through which the astronauts will enter the spacecraft, alongside the 363-foot (111-meter) Saturn V rocket standing on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center.
A portrait of Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong, the crew of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon, in the spring of 1969.

Happy Pi Day

Yay, it’s Pi Day!

Yay, it’s pie day! 🙂

While little bears are enjoying their pizza and pie, here are some facts and weird things about pi.

1. The symbol for Pi has been in use for over 250 years. The symbol was introduced by William Jones (1675-1749), an Anglo-Welsh philologist in 1706 and made popular by the mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783).

2. Since the exact value of pi can never be calculated, we can never find the accurate area or circumference of a circle.

3. March 14 or 3/14 is celebrated as pi day because of the first 3.14 are the first digits of pi. Many math nerds around the world love celebrating this infinitely long, never-ending number.

4. The record for reciting the most number of decimal places of Pi was achieved by Rajveer Meena at VIT University, Vellore, India on 21 March 2015. He was able to recite 70,000 decimal places. To maintain the sanctity of the record, Rajveer wore a blindfold throughout the duration of his recall, which took an astonishing 10 hours!

5. If you aren’t a math geek, you would be surprised to know that we can’t find the true value of pi. This is because it is an irrational number. But this makes it an interesting number as mathematicians can express π as sequences and algorithms.

6. Pi is just another weird mathematical number. It is a part of Egyptian mythology. People in Egypt believed that the pyramids of Giza were built on the principles of pi. The vertical height of the pyramids have the same relationship with the perimeter of their base as is the relationship between a circle’s radius and its circumference. The pyramids are phenomenal structures in themselves being one of the seven wonders of the world and attract tourists. So having π as the core principle makes it really special for architects.

7. Although Pi day is celebrated on March 14 (3/14), the exact time for celebration is 1:59 pm so that the exact number 3.14159 can be reached.

8. Physicist Larry Shaw started 14 March as Pi day at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1988. There he is known as the Prince of Pi.

9. There is an entire language made on the number Pi. But how is that possible? Well, some people love pi enough to invent a dialect in which the number of letters in the successive words are the same as the digits of pi. But it is not just another nerd quirk that nobody knows about. Mike Keith wrote an entire book, called Not a Wake in this language.

10. There are many records that show that pi was discovered a long time ago in the The Babylonians knew of pi approximately 4000 years ago. Evidence shows that Babylonians calculated pi as 3.125.

11. There is an interesting reason why the name ‘pi’ was coined. Before the name pi came, mathematicians had to say a mouthful. The only descriptive phrase they could use was “the quantity which when the diameter is multiplied by it, yields the circumference”. Pi was named pi by William Jones (1675-1749), a not-so-popular mathematician.

12. The number of digits in the number pi is a phenomenon in itself. Humans can never find all the digits of number pi because of its very definition. Babylonian civilisation used the fraction 3 ⅛, the Chinese used the integer 3. By 1665, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) calculated pi to 16 decimal places. This was before the computers were invented, so determining 16 digits was a big deal. It was in the early 1700s that Thomas Lagney (1660-1734) calculated 127 decimal places of pi reaching a new record. In the second half of the twentieth century, the number of digits of pi increased from about 2000 to 500,000 on the CDC 600. But this record was broken to a whole new level in 2017 when a Swiss scientist computed more than 22 trillion digits of pi which took more than a hundred days.

13. Pi is considered divine. No, not in the literal sense. The number is ‘transcendental’ in mathematical terms. A mathematician, Johann Lambert (1728-1777), gave proof that pi is irrational by giving the tangent of x using continued fraction.

14. Usefulness of pi has been a matter of debate although it is loved by a lot of math lovers. Some believe that tau (which amounts to 2π) is a better suited and intuitive irrational number. For instance, you can multiply tau with radius and calculate the circumference of a circle more intuitively. Tau/4 also represents the angle of a quarter of a circle. Hence its intuitiveness makes it more appealing to some math enthusiasts.

15. In the Exploratorium science museum, a circular parade happens every year on pi day. Each person participating holds one of the digits in the number pi. It wasn’t celebrated around the United States like it is done now until the Congress passed Resolution 224. The purpose of celebrating Pi day was to cultivate a higher level of enthusiasm for math and science.

16. In Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, scientists manage to dig deep into the mystery of the number pi to uncover the hidden messages from the creator of the human race. This new wisdom is capable of bringing depth to our consciousness.

17. The film Pi: Finding Faith in Chaos depicts the efforts of the protagonist in searching for answers about pi and, in turn, the universe. This search drives him nuts. But the good part is that this movie won the Director’s Award at the Sundance film festival.

18. A crop circle was found in 2008 that showed a coded image containing the first ten digits of pi.

19. The calculation of pi is a stress test for a computer. It works just like a digital cardiogram since it indicates the level of activity within the computer’s processor.

20. Givenchy sells a men’s cologne with the name ‘Pi’. The company markets this product as capable of enhancing sexual appeal of intelligent and visionary men.

21. The number Pi is not just an important part of conversations among mathematicians or students. In the famous O.J. Simpson trial, the defence attorney and FBI agent’s argument revolved around the value of pi. This argument over pi showed that the FBI agent’s findings in the case weren’t accurate because he used pi inaccurately.

22. The number pi was so mysterious that a Dutch-German mathematician, Ludolph van Ceulen (1540-1610), spent most of his life calculating the first 36 digits of pi. It is said that the first 36 numbers were engraved on his tombstone, which is now lost.

23. William Shanks (1812-1882), a British mathematician, worked manually to find the digits of pi. He spent many years trying to calculate the pi digits by hand and found the first 707 digits. Unfortunately, the 527th digit he found was wrong, which made his efforts of finding the remaining digits useless because they were all wrong by default.

24. Pi has a sacred bond with the circle. A circle’s angle spans 360 degrees around its centre and it is a coincidence that the number 360 is at the 359th digit position of pi.

25. In the year 1888, an Indiana country doctor claimed that he learnt the exact measure of a circle through supernatural means. He believed in his “supernatural” knowledge so much that he filed a proposal to pass a bill in the Indiana legislature so that he could copyright his genius findings. However, there was a math professor in the legislature who showed the fellow how his proposed bill will result in a wrong value of pi.

26. Even comedians use pi to make people crack at their jokes. John Evans, a comedian, once said in his performances, “What do you get if you divide the circumference of a jack-o’-lantern by its diameter? Pumpkin π.”

27. The number pi is literally infinitely long. But the number 123456 doesn’t appear anywhere in the first million digits of pi. It is a bit shocking because if a million digits of pi don’t have the sequence 124356, it definitely is the most unique number.

28. Why are we so obsessed about pi? Because we are looking for a pattern. Human beings love to find analogies and patterns in everything. And the number pi is so long and mysterious that mathematicians love to find patterns in this number.

29. Chinese people were far ahead of the West in finding the digits of pi. Why? As many mathematicians believe, the Chinese language is more conducive to mathematical computations. Chinese mathematicians were ahead in the pi game because of two reasons: they had decimal notations and they had a symbol for the number zero. It wasn’t until the late middle ages that European mathematicians started using the number zero. At that time, European mathematicians partnered with Arab and Indian minds to bring the symbol of zero into their system.

30. The usage of pi has evolved over the years. Before 17th century, pi was only used for circles. But in the 17th century, people realised that pi can be used to calculate areas of other curves including arches and hypocycloids. In the 20th century, pi was used for a wide set of applications in areas such as probability and various mathematical theories.

31. Many mathematicians believe that it is more accurate to say that a circle has infinite corners than it is to say that it has none. It is only reasonable to assume that this “infinite” number of corners correlates to the infinite number of digits of pi.

32. The number pi is hard to calculate but is super effective when you use it to calculate other things. For instance, if you round the number pi to just 9 digits after the decimal and use it to calculate earth’s circumference, the results would be amazingly accurate. For every 25,000 miles, the number pi will only err to 1/4th of an inch.

33. Pi is so amazing and “mysterious” that it has been used in mysterious situations in movies. In the 1996 thriller movie Torn Curtain, Pi is the secret code.

34. People are forever going crazy about calculating the most number of digits of pi. It is like a competition that never ends. In the year 2010, a Japanese engineer and an American computer wizard broke the record for the most number of pi digits by calculating up to 5 trillion digits. The amazing part is that they didn’t use any supercomputers. They just used desktop computers, 20 external hard disks and their brilliant minds.

35. There is a Stark Trek episode called Wolf in the Fold in which Spock thwarts the evil computer by challenging it to compute to the last digit of pi. It is amazing how no evil movie character can do anything about the number pi.

36. The Greek letter π is the first letter of the word periphery and perimeter. And as we all know, pi is the ratio of a circle’s “periphery” to its diameter.

37. Albert Einstein was born on Pi day in 1879 and Stephen Hawking died on Pi day 2018. And they both played poker with Data in the episode The Descent (part 1) 🙂

38. In the ancient times, mathematicians used a unique method to calculate pi. They would add more and more sides to a polygon so that its area approached the area of a circle. Archimedes, the most famous Greek mathematician and inventor, used a polygon with 96 sides. Many other mathematicians also used this polygon-method to compute the infinitely long number pi. In China, a mathematician used about 200 and then over 3,000 sides in a polygon to arrive at the value 3.14159. Some other used about 25,000 sides to calculate pi. It is quite clear how obsessed the mathematicians were with the number pi.

The only obsession here is with pie 🙂

This is pie I haven’t eaten yet!

Monday With Science Flicks

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science and little bears are spending the day watching science flicks.

Hidden Figures

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established by the United Nations in 2016. The 2019 theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”.

Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science.

At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (2014 – 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).

Long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science related fields. Studio 10 is banned permanently from being watched in our house after the most appalling display of stupidity and gender stereotyping of women as incapable of the most basic scientific reasoning by the women presenters on the show.

As in the real world, the world on screen reflects similar biases — the 2015 Gender Bias Without Borders study by the Geena Davis Institute showed that of the onscreen characters with an identifiable STEM job, only 12 per cent were women. And the majority of the characters are fictional!

Following the release of Hidden Figures, the story of the brilliant, gender and race barrier-breaking African-American women who worked for NASA and made possible John Glenn’s voyage into space, there was a flood of stories about women scientists in movies.

Hidden Figures – Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn
Mary Jackson
Dorothy Vaughn
Katherine Johnson

List after list was discarded by little bears – apart from Hidden Figures every other entry was about fictional women scientists. Little bears love kicking butt alongside Lara Croft 🙂 and indulging in eye candy with Jane Foster 🙂 but today they wanted flicks about real women scientists.

They love Hidden Figures, but what about other films?

Finally a list from Cornell University was most helpful, highlighting recent films about real-life women whose accomplishments in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics get their due on the big screen.

Gender discrimination is on display in Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2016), about the Polish-born, twice Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist, a pioneer in the study of radioactivity, who was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. Marie Curie is a woman with an extensive list of “firsts” to her name and in 2017, the scientific world celebrated the 150th anniversary of her birth.

The famed chimp researcher Jane Goodall didn’t want yet another documentary made about her. Jane (2017) changed her mind. The documentary is composed from 140 hours of 16mm recordings that had been tucked away in the archives of National Geographic for over 50 years. Wildlife videographer Hugo van Lawick, who later became Goodall’s husband, shot the footage in the early 1960s for a National Geographic documentary. But after it was spliced and diced, the remainder of the footage sat forgotten in the archives — until now.

By now most people know how Goodall’s hard-won discoveries about chimp intelligences reshaped our thinking about what we now know to be one of our closest evolutionary ancestors. But Jane invites viewers on a more personal journey through the jungle — delving into the Goodall’s first love, the birth of her son and the many challenges she faced as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated field. Many moments hint at genuine interactions: Goodall occasionally looks directly at the camera, perhaps flirting with Hugo, who sits behind the lens. In one scene, Hugo grooms Jane like a fellow chimp, and in another Jane sticks her tongue out at the camera (and Hugo).

Other moments show the sexism in the coverage of her work, she was often referred to as “swan-necked” and “comely”. Many scientists criticised her findings due to the fact that she was “a young untrained girl,” as Goodall says in the film. Louis Leakey, the famed anthropologist who sponsored Goodall’s work, purposefully chose Goodall in part because her mind was “uncluttered” by scientific theories of the time. Universities are meant to foster critical and innovative thinking, yet what they achieve most often is indoctrination of the students in the academic dogma, and if students were to depart from the approved dogma, they are ostracised and excluded from the ‘in group’.

Jane is relatively uncensored and “unsanitized”, with all shots taken on site. By comparison, the first documentary by National Geographic, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, included staged shots that turned the documentary into something so inaccurate it just wasn’t true. It wasn’t the only time or the only topic that Geographic staged.

The documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), highlights another side of the glamorous actress from Hollywood’s golden age. She was also a prolific inventor on the side. She, along with Hollywood composer George Antheil, were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing a frequency hopping technique at the beginning of WWII that could be used by the Allies to prevent jamming of torpedo guidance systems. The technique later became an important aspect for wireless communications. Previously thought of as just a very pretty face and not taken seriously, she is now considered one of the most important inventors of all time.

Hedy Lamarr knew what was expected of her, and becoming the inventor of a secret communication system—that would usher in technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS—was not it. But no one really pegged her for a Hollywood film star, either. Lamarr was, after all, born in 1914 and raised half a world away, in Vienna, Austria. Even the precocious daughter of a banker with training in dancing and piano wouldn’t have a hope of landing so much success so far away. But Lamarr was never concerned about what other people believed was within her grasp or out of it. She had her own restlessness to contend with. “I’ve never been satisfied,” said Lamarr. “I’ve no sooner done one thing than I am seething inside to do another thing.” Even amid divorce, war, and rejection, Lamarr could spot an opening that would bring her closer to advancement, no matter how obscured.

When Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was a child, she wandered the streets of Vienna with her father, listening to him explain the inner workings of complicated machines like streetcars and printing presses. He put a high value on independence: “[My father] made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mould my own character, think my own thoughts.” Not only did he provide her with marching orders to find her own way in the world; he also gave her the ammunition with which to carry them out. When Lamarr made the decision to leave school at sixteen and move to Berlin in order to pursue acting, she knew her father would not stop her.

Lamarr quickly made a name for herself on the stage and screen. But her ascent was not without snags. An early one was her marriage to a wealthy (and persistent) munitions dealer, Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl, who promptly forced her to quit her public-facing career as an actress for a new role at home: the trophy wife. Becoming an accessory used to thrill her husband’s powerful friends, however, did not suit her. “Any girl can be glamorous,” Lamarr said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Before long, Lamarr began plotting her escape. While she performed her act as a well-coiffed houseplant, she paid careful attention to the sensitive conversations her husband was having with his guests, who included diplomats, politicians, generals, and Benito Mussolini. Lamarr planned to leverage what intelligence she’d gathered against her controlling husband, should he refuse to allow her to quit the marriage. It never came to that. By 1937, after Mandl stormed off to one of his hunting lodges following a fight, Lamarr left for London with two large trunks, two small ones, three suitcases, and as much jewellery as she could carry. (Money was difficult to take out of the country.) Upon arriving she was able to arrange an introduction with the head of MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, the executive with the largest salary in the United States. They met at a small party. Unlit cigar in hand, he chided her for a nude appearance she’d made in an art film, telling her, “I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around a screen.” There it was again: what people think. He offered her a $125-a-week contract with MGM if she could find her own way to California. Lamarr turned him down. Salacious scene or not, Lamarr knew her value by the way Mayer inspected her—and it was more than he was offering.

But Lamarr also understood that Mayer was her best ticket to Hollywood, so when the MGM head and his wife hopped on a 1,028-foot ocean liner to the United States, Lamarr made sure she secured herself a spot on the ship, too. By the time the boat arrived stateside, Mayer had upped his offer: five hundred dollars a week for seven years if she agreed to English lessons and a name change. Her new moniker, decided over a Ping-Pong table while they travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, was marquee-ready. At age twenty-two, Hedwig Kiesler walked off the ship newly anointed as Hedy Lamarr. She was cast in her first Hollywood film seven months later.

As her career ramped up, Lamarr realised she wasn’t especially fond of Hollywood in the off hours — too many social occasions with “people who kid all the time,” she said. Lamarr preferred time to herself to tinker. Restless and still engaged in how the world worked, Lamarr transformed her drawing-room into a workshop where she could fiddle with the many ideas that preoccupied her. There, she re-imagined everything from tissue disposal to soda. For the latter, Lamarr convinced the high-flying manufacturing magnate Howard Hughes to loan her two chemists to help with experiments that would transform a bouillon cube into a savoury cola. In Forbes magazine years later, Lamarr laughed about the effort: “It was a flop.”

By 1940, the headlines about WWII became more serious. Just one month apart, two British ocean liners carrying children to safer waters were torpedoed by German U-boats. In the second incident, seventy-seven children were killed by people who spoke Lamarr’s mother tongue. She was both shaken and incensed. She deeply wanted to find a way to help the Allied forces. Perhaps, she thought, all that information she’d gathered on German military tech might be of use in defending against the Germans.

Lamarr was so serious about getting the information to officials in her adopted country that, for a time, she considered quitting acting in order to lend her knowledge of Mandl’s dealings to the National Inventors Council, a group established during WWII as a sort of clearinghouse for ideas, submitted by the public, that might help the war effort. Instead, she decided to design something practical, a technology that the military desperately needed: a better way to guide torpedoes.

By 1942, US torpedoes had a whopping 60 percent fail rate. The weapons, which were improperly tested before deployment, were tossed out like bowling balls with spin but no aim. They would often dive too deep, burst too early, or do nothing at all. On other occasions, the torpedoes hit enemy ships, but without enough oomph to sink them. The weapons needed a better inaction guide to keep them on course. Lamarr started thinking about communication. If the soldiers ordering the torpedoes could keep tabs on them en route, the effect would be like installing bumper lanes in the vast, uncertain sea. Should the missile start to veer off, a human could guide it back from afar.

Engineers had been thinking about the communication problem for decades, but they hadn’t yet uncovered a solution that was enemy-proof. Although radio could offer a connection between sub and torpedo, the technology had an oversharing problem. Once a station was established, enemies could easily gum it up, jam it, or listen to the signal. The line was too public. What soldiers needed was a way to talk to their weapons without the enemy overhearing the instructions. An anti-jamming technique had been floated in 1898 by a US Navy engineer, but his solution—transmitting over higher and higher frequencies—wouldn’t have lasted long as opposing forces one-upped each other for higher and higher real estate. Lamarr, however, had another idea about how to secure a safe and clear connection. Since setting a single frequency left the communication vulnerable, she thought that a coordinated effort where both the sender and the receiver hopped frequencies in a pattern would confound anyone trying to listen in. The idea was similar to two pianos playing in unison.

Helping her to advance the idea was Lamarr’s friend George Antheil, a composer who put together movie scores to help support his more experimental work. Antheil was famous for a piece he produced in Paris in 1926 called Le Ballet Mécanique. Although humans ended up playing the parts, the work called for automated player pianos to perform in sync. Lamarr, also an accomplished pianist, sometimes played recreationally with Antheil. The duo would play a game sort of like chase across the keys. One person would start playing a tune, and the other would have to catch the song and play alongside. According to her son, this synchronised musical discourse gave the inventor her idea for outsmarting the Axis opponents. Antheil, who had already put quite a lot of thought into how to synchronise machines and who had, at one point, been a US munitions inspector, was the perfect partner to help Lamarr implement her idea.

Over countless hours on the phone, in the evenings, and spread out with matchsticks and other knickknacks on Lamarr’s living room rug, the pair nailed down the basics for their frequency-hopping invention. They applied for a patent in June 1941.

More concerned about the war than monetization, Lamarr and Antheil also sent their ambitious plans to Washington, DC, for review from the National Inventors Council. The positive feedback was swift. In a special to the New York Times, the council leaked its approval. The article began, “Hedy Lamarr, screen actress, was revealed today in a new role, that of an inventor. So vital is her discovery to national defence that government officials will not allow publication of its details.” The idea was classified “red hot” by the council’s engineer.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed the perception of the project. With the tragedy came many revelations about the sorry state of the United States’ existing torpedoes. At this point, the navy decided that they had neither the bandwidth nor the interest to test another system. Lamarr and Antheil secured the patent but lost out on a government contract. Lamarr’s patent was classified and filed away, its inventors’ chances for real-world deployment left in the dusty back pockets of a government cabinet.

It wasn’t until two decades later that the idea resurfaced, wrapped into a new frequency-hopping communication technology (later called spread-spectrum). Even then, the idea didn’t go public until 1976—thirty-five years after Lamarr patented it.

As it turned out, the technology had broader uses than just missiles. Lamarr’s idea paved the way for a myriad of technologies, including wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems, to name a few. While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the full recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. Her response: “It’s about time.”

Another women inventor was Hertha Ayrton, a pioneering Victorian physicist, inventor and suffragette. No documentary yet, that we know of. Her research took the flickering out of the flicks.

Hertha Ayrton

When early theatre goers nicknamed cinema “the flicks,” the name was an affectionate reference to a technological quirk. The powerful light beam directed through film strips fluttered, sending black-and-white moving images to the screen in bursts and dips. That flicker came from early projectors’ arc lighting, which was created when two carbon rods placed next to each other were electrified. The electricity jumped the gap between the two rods, causing a brilliant, if unsteady, arc. Over time, arc lighting’s flicker was verbally shortened to flick, and the name stuck despite modern cinema’s steady projections.

Arc lighting dates back to 1807, but it wasn’t until generators caught up with the technology’s needs in the 1870s that industry could finally use it. Too bright for homes, arc lights became the go-to solution for lighthouses and other applications where very strong beams were needed. By the 1890s, they started to replace gas in streetlights, later becoming famous for their place in films, both illuminating the sets of movies like Citizen Kane and beaming early silent film stars to the screen.

Arc lighting should have been background, but because the lights hissed and sputtered, they claimed a prominent part in every production. The ruckus occurred in the rods. When they were electrified, the carbon evaporated and a tiny hole formed. As air rushed into the divot, it created a whine. Constantly tweaking and adjusting the rods in an effort to coax them into doing their job without too much protesting, arc light attendants were always busy.

Scientists like Hertha Ayrton and her husband, William, an electrical engineer, started working toward a quieter and more consistent arc light in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, their work went up in flames when it was mistaken for kindling, crumpled by the maid, and tossed into the fireplace. (No word on whether the fire burned brighter.) The mistake occurred while her husband was away in the United States on business, so Ayrton restarted the research by herself.

Always supportive of his wife’s endeavours, Ayrton was scrupulous about not collaborating with her on this research as he knew that any joint work would undoubtedly be credited to himself by the world at large. She began by mounting a thorough investigation. By understanding the process’s intricacies, she hoped to identify the problem and figure out how to engineer it to cut the hiss and flicker.

When she discovered that the rod was the problem, Ayrton designed one shaped for quieter use. Along the way, Ayrton also got clarity on the light’s flutter, by learning about the relationship between the voltage drop across the arc, the arc’s length, and the current.

Her experiments explained that the hissing and the accompanying change in appearance of the arc were caused when oxygen came into contact with the crater formed in the carbon. This happened when the crater was too large to occupy only the end of the positive carbon and extended up the side, thus coming into direct contact with the air and causing it to burn rather than to volatilize.

Ayrton proved through careful experiment that if air was excluded from the arc, the hissing did not occur. Neither did it occur when nitrogen or other component parts of air were introduced in isolation. She demonstrated that if the arc could be protected from direct contact with air, the hissing and the subsequent reduction in performance of the lamp could be prevented.

In 1895 she published a series of articles in The Electrician on the subject and in March 1899, she was the first woman to present a paper to the Institution of Engineering and Technology. She was elected to full membership of the IET two days later.

The IET appears to have distinguished itself by the purely professional interest they took in Ayrton’s work, tending to support her own view that it was the merit of the research which mattered, not the gender of the scientist, but other institutions were not so welcoming.

In 1899, Ayrton also demonstrated her work on arcs for the Royal Society. A newspaper gushed that the “lady visitors” were “astonished…one of their own sex [was] in charge of the most dangerous-looking of all the exhibits — a fierce arc light enclosed in glass. Mrs. Ayrton was not a bit afraid of it.”

Members of the Royal Society, however, were a bit afraid of her. When Ayrton’s paper The Mechanism of the Electric Arc was accepted in 1901, the society recruited a male member to publicly present it, as women weren’t allowed.

In 1902 she was proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, causing consternation. Her candidature was supported by some notable men of science, but when the council of the Royal Society met to discuss the issue, it was decreed as follows:

We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful.

Ayrton thought that the discrimination she faced was utter nonsense. “Personally I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all,” she explained to a journalist. “The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”

Ayrton was one of the good scientists. Her 450-page book, The Electric Arc, became the standard on arc lighting nearly as soon as it was published in 1902. But it wasn’t until two years later that the Royal Society allowed Ayrton to read a paper of her own. Finally, the organisation had come around. In 1906, Ayrton was awarded the society’s Hughes Medal “for an original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly as applied to the generation, storage and use of energy.” Membership, however, was still out of her reach.

Until 1918, women’s right to vote was, too. Informed by her own early poverty and continuing experience with sexism, Ayrton was an outspoken suffragist operating with authority, charm, and presence. She cared for suffragist hunger strikers and refused to participate in the 1911 census. Scrolled across the official census form she wrote, “How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament? I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for women. Hertha Ayrton.”

Ayrton was one of a small club of women attempting to gain acceptance in the overwhelmingly male scientific institutions. Ayrton counted Marie Curie among her closest friends, and often stuck up for the chemist’s reputation publicly. “An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat,” wrote Ayrton in response to a common Curie refrain. When Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in 1906 and Ayrton’s husband, William, died in 1908, both went on to prove that, though their husbands were valued collaborators, they possessed scientific prowess of their own.

Science was actually Ayrton’s second career. Before her exploration into arc lighting, she was an inventor, patenting a device that would divide a line into equal segments. (Some biographers ascribe her affinity for tinkering to her watchmaker father.) In WWI, dismayed by reports of chlorine gas being used on British soldiers, she was drawn to invention again. The self-assigned task was this: How could she protect soldiers from the noxious gas? To experiment with a variety of methods, Ayrton staged a miniature war zone in her drawing room, with matchboxes serving as trenches and cooled smoke (produced from brown paper lit on fire) standing in as gas, which she poured over the circuit. There she refined what she believed to be the best solution — essentially a long broomstick topped by a large rectangular paddle, which would force the gas away when flapped manually.

The military was initially sceptical. What could these fans possibly do in battle? The organisation’s hang-ups were partly semantic. “Fans” were objects that women carried. It took a couple of years and a demonstration in the field in 1917, but the military finally put the devices to use; some one hundred thousand were eventually shipped to the Western Front. Two years later, Ayrton completed an automatic version to contend with gas carried on more powerful winds.

Ayrton was a creative problem solver. She had the flexibility and skill set to tackle a hiss, a flicker, or a deadly gas, whether it required a set of pillboxes or the principles of physics. It never mattered if others believed those things weren’t within her reach. She knew they were.

From Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science and the World, by Rachel Swaby.

The De Element

You won’t find De element in the standard periodic table, but you will find it in the table of disruptive technologies created by futurists at Imperial Tech Foresight (ITF), an offshoot of Imperial College London.

The table of disruptive technologies is an easy-to-follow chart of the technological changes we can expect to see in the near future — from the everyday useful to the potentially catastrophic.

The Table of Disruptive Technologies

Each element is colour coded. The green elements in the bottom left-hand corner are happening now, the yellow items are coming soon, the red elements are expected to take another 20 years to become reality and the grey elements are the highly speculative stuff of science fiction. While each example in the grey area is highly improbable, very few, if any, are totally impossible.

Each technology is also categorised according to one of five themes: data ecosystems, smart planet, extreme automation, human augmentation and human-machine interactions. The chart includes examples of companies that are active in these areas. Incredibly, out of the 100 innovations, they haven’t found examples for only 6. And even more incredibly, human head transplants (Ht, 93 in the grey area) is not one of the areas where there is no activity. While the grey area is fringe thinking territory with some ideas bordering on complete lunacy, eg. human head transplants, there are organisations working on all but two of these areas. Unfortunately, the Digital Footprint Eraser (De, 91) is in this area, but there are at least two companies working on it.

Examples of organisations active in each area

The chart ranks the feasibility, immediacy and world-changing potential of 100 potentially disruptive technologies, which ITF defines as “new technologies capable of significant social, economic or political upheaval.” Battlefield robots (Br, 84), besides sounding like something straight out of Iron Man, sounds likes something that could create a great deal of social, economic or political upheaval. And they are at least three companies working on this.

Taken as a whole, it illustrates gradual progression from the technologies we’re getting used to today—such as concentrated solar power and “smart diapers”—to far-flung wonders such as artificial intelligence politicians (we could finally get rational discourse and informed decision making!) and human head transplants.

The table was created by Richard Watson and Anna Cupani at ITF, a consultancy firm that helps businesses prepare for technological change. They spoke to experts to shape the table and used Post-it Notes for each element, arranging them in a way that would make sense.

Disruptive technologies dashboard

While the chart was developed as a conversation starter, businesses can still benefit from it. According to Richard Watson, companies should be integrating and executing the green-labeled technologies right now if they are appropriate, while experimenting with and discussing the yellows and keeping an eye on developments in the reds. He talks about the table he developed in this post.

It’s Periodic

What better way to start the new year than with a song 🙂

The United Nations has designated 2019 as the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the table’s creation by Dmitry Mendeleev. Other milestones this year include the discovery of phosphorus 350 years ago, Antoine Lavoisier’s categorisation of 33 elements in 1789 and the formulation of the law of the triads by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner 190 years ago.

Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) in 1897
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)
by Jacques Louis David, 1788
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lavoisier’s Laboratory at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris
Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner (1780-1849)

The modern incarnation of the periodic table organises elements by rows based on atomic number — the number of protons in an atom’s nucleus — and by columns based on the orbits of their outermost electrons, which in turn usually dictate their personalities. Soft metals that tend to react strongly with others, such as lithium and potassium, live in one column. Non-metallic reactive elements, like fluorine and iodine, inhabit another.

French geologist Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois was the first person to recognise that elements could be grouped in recurring patterns. He displayed the elements known in 1862, ordered by their weights, as a spiral wrapped around a cylinder. Elements vertically in line with each other on this cylinder had similar characteristics.

But it was the organisational scheme created by Dmitri Mendeleev, a hot-tempered Russian who claimed to have seen groupings of elements in a dream, that stood the test of time. His 1871 periodic table wasn’t perfect; it predicted eight elements that do not exist, for instance. However, it also correctly foretold gallium (now used in lasers), germanium (now used in transistors) and other increasingly heavy elements.

The Mendeleev periodic table easily accepted a brand new column for the noble gases, such as helium, which had eluded detection until the end of the 19th century because of their proclivity to not react with other elements.

The main difference between the modern periodic table and Mendeleev’s periodic table is that Mendeleev’s table arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic weight, while the modern table orders the elements by increasing atomic number. For the most part, the order of the elements is the same between both tables, but there are exceptions.

The modern periodic table has been more or less consistent with quantum physics, introduced in the 20th century to explain the behaviour of subatomic particles like protons and electrons. In addition, the groupings have mostly held as heavier elements have been confirmed. Bohrium, the name given to element 107 after its discovery in 1981, fits so neatly with the other so-called transition metals that surround it, one of the researchers who discovered it proclaimed “bohrium is boring”.

In 2016, chemistry teachers had to update their classroom décor, with the announcement that scientists have confirmed the discovery of four new elements on the periodic table. The elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 filled in the remaining gaps at the bottom of the famous chart.

The official confirmation of the new elements, granted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), was years in the making, as these superheavy elements are highly unstable and tough to create. But scientists had strong reason to believe they existed, in part because the periodic table has been remarkably consistent so far. Efforts to conjure up elements 119 and 120, which would start a new row, are already underway.

I am not sure what’s more challenging, finding new elements or names for them! The latest four elements are nihonium, named for Japan; moscovium, named for Moscow; tennessine, named for Tennessee, the location of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and oganesson, named for the well-known Russian nuclear chemist who led Russia’s team in the discovery of the new elements, Yuri Oganessian. For a future element, they will have to think of an abbreviation with the letter J. It’s the only letter not in the periodic table.

But cracks are beginning to show in the periodic table and interesting times may lie ahead.

One open question concerns lanthanum (57) and actinium (89), which have less in common with the other members of their respective groups than lutetium (71) and lawrencium (103). IUPAC has appointed a task force to look into this issue. Even helium, element 2, isn’t straightforward — an alternative version of the periodic table exists that places helium with beryllium and magnesium instead of its noble gas neighbours, based on the arrangements of all its electrons instead of only the outermost ones.

Einstein’s special theory of relativity, published decades after Mendeleev’s table, also introduced some chinks in the system. Relativity dictates that the mass of a particle increases with its speed. That can cause the negatively charged electrons orbiting the positively charged core of an atom to behave strangely, affecting the properties of an element.

Consider gold: The nucleus is packed with 79 positive protons, so to keep from falling inward, gold’s electrons have to whiz around at more than half the speed of light. That makes them more massive and pulls them into a tighter, lower-energy orbit. In this configuration, the electrons absorb blue light instead of reflecting it, giving wedding bands their distinctive gleam.

Richard Feynman is said to have invoked relativity to predict the end of the periodic table at element 137. To Feynman, 137 was a “magic number” — it had popped up for no obvious reason elsewhere in physics. His calculations showed that electrons in elements beyond 137 would have to move faster than the speed of light, and thus violate the rules of relativity, to avoid crashing into the nucleus.

More recent calculations have since overturned that limit. Feynman treated the nucleus as a single point. Allow it to be a ball of particles, and the elements can keep going until about 173. Then all hell breaks loose. Atoms beyond this limit may exist but only as strange creatures capable of summoning electrons from empty space.

Relativity isn’t the only problem. Positively charged protons repel each other, so the more you pack into a nucleus, the less stable it tends to be. Uranium, with an atomic number of 92, is the last element stable enough to occur naturally on Earth. Every element beyond it has a nucleus that falls apart quickly, and their half-lives—the time it takes for half of the material to decay—can be minutes, seconds or even split seconds.

Heavier, unstable elements may exist elsewhere in the universe, like inside dense neutron stars, but scientists can study them here only by smashing together lighter atoms to make heavier ones and then sifting through the decay chain.

In the meantime, creative people are having fun with the existing table.

Keith Enevoldsen from elements.wlonk.com has come up with an awesome periodic table that gives at least one application for every single element (except for those weird superheavy elements that don’t actually exist in nature).

There’s thulium for laser eye surgery, cerium for lighter flints, and krypton for flashlights. There is strontium for fireworks, and xenon for high-intensity lamps inside lighthouses. Rubidium is used in the world’s most accurate time-keeping devices, and niobium helps make trains levitate. Chemical elements are cool! To find out what the other elements are used for, try out the interactive periodic table.

Mary Soon Lee, a British speculative fiction author, has also come up with a different but equally awesome periodic table. Drawing from a range of fields, including astronomy, biology, and history, the Elemental haiku comprises 119 science poems, arranged in the classic periodic table structure.

Many of the poems are superbly clever allusions to how each element operates in the natural world.

Helium
Begin universe.
Wait three minutes to enter.
Stay cool. Don’t react.

Sodium
Racing to trigger
every kiss, every kind act;
behind every thought.

Radon
Homeowners’ hazard,
skulking down in the basement,
plotting your decay.

To check out the other poems, head over to the interactive table and simply click or tap on each element to read its corresponding haiku.