A Shocking Experience

On a dry summer day in California, physicist Julius Sumner Miller was driving slowly near the desert when a friend overtook him on the left. The friend’s wife, in the passenger seat, reached out to hand him a package of gum. Their hands were no less than 3 inches apart when “a terrific discharge took place which possessed the classical physiological effects. The shock was momentarily disabling, as a three-inch spark in air can well be.”

Miller published an inquiry about this in the American Journal of Physics and received a reply from R.F. Miller of B.F. Goodrich in Ohio. The motion of the cars had built up charges of different amounts; Goodrich had found that the accumulated charges can (or could) increase greatly as the wheel rotates, and “as soon as the tread charges are far enough removed, they will find a lower resistance path through the rim to ground rather than around the tread,” charging the vehicle.

Even at the time the phenomenon was well known; in his original letter Miller noted that gasoline trucks were required by law to carry a dragging chain or strap. But “the question as to how great a charge may accumulate is difficult to answer.”

(Julius Sumner Miller, “Concerning the Electric Charge on a Moving Vehicle,” American Journal of Physics, 21:4 [April 1953], 316.)

Homecoming

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skull_of_Mkwawa.jpg

The Treaty of Versailles contains a macabre clause:

ARTICLE 246. Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, … Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.

Mkwawa was a tribal leader in German East Africa who opposed colonization. After his defeat in battle, the Germans had sent his skull to Berlin. When the United Kingdom inherited the colony after World War I, the British sought to return the skull to the Wahehe people, but there was some confusion as to its whereabouts. It wasn’t actually returned until 1954, when Tanganyika governor Sir Edward Twining tracked it down in the Bremen Museum. It now resides at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga, Tanzania.

(Thanks, Jon.)

Retribution

A poignant little detail I found in Jay Scarfone and William Stillman’s The Wizardry of Oz: For the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, MGM designated a flying monkey named Nikko to serve as the Wicked Witch’s familiar.

Unlike the other monkeys, Nikko has very small wings. An early script, dated July 5, 1938, explains that the Witch had clipped his wings to ensure his servitude.

In that script, it’s Nikko who presses the water bucket into Dorothy’s hands at the critical moment.

The Social Whirl

A problem by Russian mathematician Vyacheslav Proizvolov:

At a party each girl danced with three boys, and each boy danced with three girls. Prove that the number of girls at the party was equal to the number of boys.

Click for Answer

Primate Wanted

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_t_scopes.jpg

The ACLU found John Scopes by running a newspaper ad seeking a teacher willing to test the law about teaching human evolution in the classrooms of Tennessee. From the May 4, 1925, edition of the Chattanooga Times:

We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts. Our lawyers think a friendly test case can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need now is a willing client.

Scopes wasn’t a biology teacher but had filled in for one using a textbook that accepted evolution, and that was enough to set the “monkey trial” moving forward.

Strangely, the disputed textbook was the one that Tennessee required its high school teachers to use that year. Clarence Darrow later quipped in his autobiography, “It seems strange that the Dayton school board did not adopt the first and second chapters of Genesis as a modern textbook on biology.”

Alterations

white house alterations

As the 19th century advanced, the White House began to seem increasingly cramped. In 1889, the centennial of the U.S. presidency, First Lady Caroline Harrison suggested adding an art wing to the east and an administrative wing to the west, with glass-enclosed palm gardens, plant conservatories, and a lily pond completing the quadrangle, creating a private inner courtyard (top). Congress shot it down.

In 1900 Army engineer Colonel Theodore Bingham offered his own plan, which would add a massive two-story cylindrical wing at each flank, with domes and lanterns patterned after those at the Library of Congress (middle and bottom). The project stalled with McKinley’s assassination.

In 1902 the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White finally renovated the mansion, doubling the size of the family living quarters and providing a new wing for the president and his staff. The modern White House still largely reflects this design.

Related: In 1947, when Harry Truman proposed building a balcony on the south face of the White House, critics raised a unique objection:

Some quarters in Washington are wondering, half in fun, if President Truman’s controversial balcony on the White House will make $20 bills inaccurate and outmoded. The $20 bill bears a picture of the south portico of the White House, where Mr. Truman has announced he wants to build his balcony. If that structure is added, the currency will be pictorially incorrect.

That’s from the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 1, 1948. “Treasury officials scoffed at the idea that the balcony might make it necessary to print a new issue of $20 bills. They agreed that the bureau of engraving and printing is proud of the accuracy of its currency engravings, but said there is a limit to accuracy.” But subsequent issues of the bill were quietly updated to reflect the new addition.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US-$20-FRN-1928-Fr-2050-G.jpg

Portrait

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rutherford_crocodile.jpg

Carved into the brickwork of a cylindrical tower at Cambridge University’s New Museums Site is a great crocodile. It was commissioned by Pyotr Kapitza, who had moved to Cambridge from Russia expressly to work with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Kapitza called his mentor “crocodile,” a title that Russians traditionally confer on great men (and also, Kapitza said, because Rutherford’s thunderous voice announced his approach, just as the crocodile in Peter Pan was announced by the ticking watch in its belly).

Eric Gill carved the animal into the side of the Mond Laboratory, which was erected in 1933 with Rutherford’s backing to support Kapitza’s work in low-temperature physics. Unfortunately, after a holiday in Russia the following year, Kapitza was barred from leaving the country, and he never returned to Cambridge.

A few quotations by Rutherford:

  • “Don’t let me catch anyone talking about the Universe in my department.”
  • “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”
  • “We’re like children who always want to take apart watches to see how they work.”
  • “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”
  • “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.”

Paul Langevin and Rutherford served together as research assistants at Cavendish Laboratory. Asked afterward whether they were friendly, Langevin said, “One can hardly speak of being friendly with a force of nature.”

Early Work

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the notion of a black hole was first posited in 1783, by the English natural philosopher John Michell. In a paper read before the Royal Society that November, he wrote:

Let us now suppose the particles of light to be attracted in the same manner as all other bodies with which we are acquainted; that is, by forces bearing the same proportion to their vis inertiae (or mass), of which there can be no reasonable doubt, gravitation being, as far as we know, or having any reason to believe, an universal law of nature. … [I]f the semi-diameter of a sphere of the same density as the Sun were to exceed that of the Sun in the proportion of 500 to 1, a body falling from an infinite height towards it, would have acquired at its surface greater velocity than that of light, and consequently supposing light to be attracted by the same force in proportion to its vis inertiae, with other bodies, all light emitted from such a body would be made to return towards it by its own proper gravity.

“From these quotations it is clear that Michell in 1783 understood many of the basic principles of black hole physics which are in daily use almost 200 years later,” writes Cambridge physicist Gary Gibbons. Indeed, Michell’s talent doomed him to obscurity: His breakthroughs were lost on his contemporaries and forgotten by the time the world could appreciate them. His notion of a “dark star” was rediscovered only in the 1970s. The American Physical Society says, “[H]e remains virtually unknown today, in part because he did little to develop and promote his own path-breaking ideas.”

(Gary Gibbons, “The Man Who Invented Black Holes,” New Scientist, June 28, 1979.) (Thanks, Alejandro.)

A Stretch

https://books.google.com/books?id=jR4HAAAAMAAJ

Biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson advanced a strange new idea in his 1917 book On Growth and Form: He found that if you draw the outline of an animal or plant on an ordinary Cartesian grid, and then you put the grid through some mathematical transformation (stretching it, for example, so that its squares become rhombuses), very often the resulting shape is that of a related real creature.

What can that mean? Thompson doesn’t really say. He thought that the biologists of his day overemphasized evolution in explaining the form and structure of living things; he preferred to look for physical and especially mathematical laws. But he didn’t present his ideas as principles that might be tested, so his book has (so far) remained only a notable curiosity.

“This theory cries out for causal explanation, which is something the great man eschewed,” writes zoologist Wallace Arthur. “Perhaps the time is close when comparative developmental genetics will be able to provide such an explanation.”

(Wallace Arthur, “D’Arcy Thompson and the Theory of Transformations,” Nature Reviews Genetics, May 2006, 401-406.)

The Missing Man

smullyan chess problem

A problem by Raymond Smullyan. The diagram above shows the final position in a chess game in which nothing has moved from a white square to a black one or vice versa. One piece has been omitted from the diagram. What color is the square that it stands on?

Click for Answer