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The Aerostat,--Worked by Manual Power--Invented by W. Miller, M.R.C.S.

National Air and Space Museum
Colored lithograph of the "Aerostat" flying machine aloft over a field with a river and city in the background. A diagram of the machine is below the scene with a scale and captions. This hand-operated ornithopter was designed, but apparently neither built nor tested by W. Miller Text to the right of the diagram has a more detailed description of the machine and how it is operated. After a drawing by J. Absolon.

'London. Published for the Proprietor by Ackermann & Co. 96, Strand; T. McLean, 26, Haymarket; J. Cross, 18, Holborn; and R. Lambe, 96, Gracechurch Street; 22nd April 1843. J. Absolon delt. C.F. Cheffins Lithogr.'

The Amenities of 2030

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Illustration for Frederick Edwin Smith’s book, The World in 2030 A.D., for which Kauffer produced a series of drawings using an airbrush technique. At bottom, two rows of people sit in chairs watching a presenter, standing in front of them. The standing figure points to a large presentation screen above. On the screen, a depiction of an artist mannequin running to the right, and a note on the diagram at upper left that reads: Chart A / Movement.

The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary

Smithsonian Magazine

“How 12 convicts escaped by tunnel from Eastern Penitentiary,” Diagram of the Tunnel published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1945 (image: Philadelphia Inquirer via Easter State Penitentiary)

Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.

Photo of Willie Sutton’s in 1934; a photo taken mere minutes after his escape in 1945; Sutton’s post-escape mug shot; the wanted poster issued after Sutton’s escape from Holmesburg. At the time he was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.

Clarence Klinedinst in the center (image: Temple University Archives via Eastern State Penitentiary)

Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.

The entry to the escape tunnel, excavated by a team of archaeologists and researches in 2005.

Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.

After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.

Two of the escapees, including Sutton (at left), are returned to Eastern after mere minutes of freedom. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:

“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.

“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.

“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”

The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.

The map of the 1945 tunnel made by guard Cecil Ingling. In his larger-than-life account of the escape, Sutton claimed the tunnel went 30-feet down. “I knew that the prison wall itself extended 25 feet beneath the surface of the ground and that it was fourteen feet thick at the base.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.

Archaeologists use ground-penetrating radar and an auger to detect the remains of the 1945 tunnel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. (images: Digging in the City of Brotherly Love)

The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited  by  stories of the prison and its inmates.

There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.

The Golden Record 2.0 Will Crowdsource A Selfie of Human Culture

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft left our solar system, carrying a “Golden Record”—a gold-plated phonograph record containing analogue images, greetings, and music from Earth. It was meant to be a snapshot of humanity. On the small chance that an alien lifeform encountered Voyager, they could get a sense of who made it.

“This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe,” said Carl Sagan who led the six-member team that created the Golden Record.

No spacecraft has left our solar system since Voyager, but in the next few years, NASA’s New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, will reach Pluto and then pass into the far edges of the solar system and beyond. A new project aims to create a “Golden Record 2.0”. Just like the original record, this new version will represent a sampling of human culture for NASA to transmit to New Horizons just before it soars off into the rest of the universe.

Atlas V Launches the New Horizons Mission to Pluto. (© Ben Cooper/SuperStock/Corbis)

The genesis of the project came from Jon Lomberg, a scientific artist and the designer of the original Golden Record. Over the last year he’s recruited experts in a variety of fields to back the project. To convince NASA of public support, he launched a website and put together a petition, signed by over 10,000 people in 140 countries. When Lomberg presented the idea to NASA earlier this year, the agency was receptive and will be releasing a statement with further details on the project on August 25. In the meantime, he and his colleague Albert Yu-Min Lin, a research scientist at the University of California in San Diego, gave a preview of their plan at Smithsonian’s Future Is Here event in Washington, DC, today.

Jon Lomberg with the Voyager record in 1981. Lomberg, Design Director for Voyager and New Horizons Golden Record project, drew the cover diagram showing extra-terrestrials how to play the record. This diagram has an estimated lifetime of 1000 million years, making it humanity’s most enduring piece of art. (© Galaxy Garden Enterprises LLC 2013)

New Horizons will likely only have a small amount of memory space available for the content, so what should make the cut? Photos of landscapes and animals (including humans), sound bites of great speakers, popular music, or even videos could end up on the digital record. Lin is developing a platform where people will be able to explore and critique the submissions on the site. “We wanted to make this a democratic discussion,” says Lin. “How do we make this not a conversation about cute cats and Justin Beiber?” One can only guess what aliens might make of the Earth’s YouTube video fodder.

What sets this new effort apart from the original is that the content will be crowdsourced. “We thought this time why not let the people of earth speak for themselves,” says Lomberg. “Why not figure out a way to crowd source this message so that people would be able to decide what they wanted to say?” Lomberg has teamed up with Lin, who specializes in crowdsourcing technology, to create a platform where people from all over the world can submit content to be included on the record.

Albert Yu-Min Lin speaks about the potential of crowdsourcing at The Future is Here. (Erin Corneliussen)

NASA hasn’t committed any funding to the project, so Lomberg is charged with coming up with the capital required to put the message together. Lomberg will pursue online fundraising efforts, private funders, and possibly a Kickstarter campaign.

Once the world has put this message together, how do we get it there? New Horizons is already well on its way to Pluto, so it’s not as if we can plug in a thumb drive and upload the message data. Instead, the message will be transmitted in a somewhat old-fashioned way—over the radio. NASA uses a radio wave network called the Deep Space Network involving three satellites that orbit earth to communicate with its spacecrafts and probes out in the field. “It’s much slower than dial-up,” says Lin. Once New Horizons reaches Pluto, it will zip by the drawf planet collecting data, and then transmit all of that data back to Earth, which will take about a year. Once it’s done handing off the data, NASA will stream the data message to be stored on the probe’s computer system.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, currently on its way to Pluto. (© CHARLES W LUZIER/Reuters/Corbis)

This summer, the Golden Record 2.0 hopes to begin accepting submissions. New Horizons will reach Pluto in July 2015, and if all goes well, the message will be secured in the probe's memory by the end of 2016.

Once New Horizons leaves the solar system, the chances that the probe will encounter extraterrestrial life are slim: the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 million light years across, and no one knows exactly how big our universe is. If New Horizons does cross paths with extra terrestrial life, those alien organisms would need to be intelligent in order to comprehend the probe’s message. “Will they ever be found? Probably not,” says Lomberg.

But, perhaps more important than the message’s fate in space is it’s impact here on earth. When the original Golden Record left the solar system with Voyager, “the reception for it was almost uniformly positive. It excited kids. It got a lot of people interested in science,” says Lomberg. At the very least, the message will perhaps challenge us to contemplate our place in the universe. 

For more information on the New Horizons message project, check out their project’s new website.


The Human Eye—A Living Camera

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design featuring a multicolored scientific depiction of an eyeball with a diagram demonstrating how the mechanisms of the eye imitate a camera in the upper portion of the composition. A blue eye, with a brown eyebrow, appears in the center of the composition. Two additional illustrated diagrams appear at bottom: one showing how inverted images on the retinas of eyes are brought together to form an upright object and another showing the muscles of the eye that allow the eyes to turn in any direction or converge. The design contains a solid yellow background and explanatory text alongside the illustrations. Printed in black ink, upper left: The human eye—a living camera.

The Human Eye—A Living Camera

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Design featuring a multicolored scientific depiction of an eyeball with a diagram demonstrating how the mechanisms of the eye imitate a camera in the upper portion of the composition. A blue eye, with a brown eyebrow, appears in the center of the composition. Two additional illustrated diagrams appear at bottom: one showing how inverted images on the retinas of eyes are brought together to form an upright object and another showing the muscles of the eye that allow the eyes to turn in any direction or converge. The design contains a solid yellow background and explanatory text alongside the illustrations. Printed in black ink, upper left: The human eye—a living camera.

The Menstrual Cycle

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Printed quarter-fold brochure with a diagram of the overall menstrual cycle on the front cover in pink, red, yellow, white, and black against a black background. White numbers representing days of the month are arranged in a circle, and different types of moons appear in white in the four corners. Printed in white, along the bottom: THE MENSTRUAL CYLCE. Diagrams specific to each stage of the cycle, showing the ovary and the uterus, appear on the interior. Interior folds out to a large, white page with information about correcting menstrual disturbances with Progynon-B, Progynon-DH, and Proluton, printed in black and red text. Verso: Printed text in black and red about the products.

The Menstrual Cycle

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Printed quarter-fold brochure with a diagram of the overall menstrual cycle on the front cover in pink, red, yellow, white, and black against a black background. White numbers representing days of the month are arranged in a circle, and different types of moons appear in white in the four corners. Printed in white, along the bottom: THE MENSTRUAL CYLCE. Diagrams specific to each stage of the cycle, showing the ovary and the uterus, appear on the interior. Interior folds out to a large, white page with information about correcting menstrual disturbances with Progynon-B, Progynon-DH, and Proluton, printed in black and red text. Verso: Printed text in black and red about the products.

The Middle Passage - African Holocaust

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Modeled after diagram of a slave trade ship seen from above, showing the lower deck densely packed with a cargo of slaves; five heads of African slaves in profile hang from the lower edge.

The Middle Passage - African Holocaust, "Maafa" (terrible thing in Swahili)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Modeled after diagram of a slave trade ship seen from above, showing the lower deck densely packed with a cargo of slaves; five cowrie shells hang from the lower edge.

The Revolutionary Infographics of W.E.B. Du Bois And Booker T. Washington

Smithsonian Magazine

These days, data visualizations are a popular tool for everyone from researchers to reporters trying to explain complex concepts and statistics. But just because computers make it easier to create these images doesn’t mean infographics are a recent invention. One of the earliest known data visualizations can be dated all the way back to the 11th century, writes Clive Thompson for Smithsonian Magazine. Now, a 116-year-old series of infographics by a group led by W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and a prominent lawyer named Thomas J. Calloway detailing the lives of African-Americans in the post-Civil War United States have begun to circulate again. In many ways, the work is just as revolutionary now as it was when it was first created.

It was actually slavery that first drove some of the country’s most important data visualizations, Thompson writes. When the South began to secede from the United States in the mid-19th century, the federal government used data from the latest census to highlight the concentration of slaves in each county of Virginia. Those data visualizations helped President Abraham Lincoln understand where slavery was the weakest.

When the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World Fair of 1900, occurred, slavery remained a recent memory for African-Americans. Many black intellectuals and researchers were concerned with how their community was faring in the years since slavery had been abolished. In order to represent the African-American community at the exposition, the group of researchers compiled and organized an exhibit of infographics, photographs, maps and other materials documenting their experience since the end of slavery, Brentin Mock writes for CityLab.

By presenting quantified data on how black people had fared in the years after the Civil War, Du Bois hoped to provide “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.” In addition to photographic portraits of black people from the turn of the century, the infographics depict what had changed for African-Americans since slavery, in everything from education to income, Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic.

The group settled on data gathered in Georgia, as the state had the largest black population in the U.S. at the time. While Du Boise, Washington and Calloway were the banner names on the project, many of the vibrantly colored, hand-drawn infographics were made in collaboration with students from historically black colleges like Atlanta University and Tuskegee University, Mock writes. But though the drawings are over a century old, they still stand out as revolutionary for both their form and content.

“Looking at the charts, they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky,” Meier writes. “But they are in line with innovative 19th-century data visualization, which included Florence Nightingale’s “coxcomb” diagrams on causes of war mortality and William Farr’s dynamic cholera charts. Du Bois himself used horizontal bar graphs in his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro.”

The final exhibit in Paris featured 60 full-color charts on display, as well as 200 books by black authors and hundreds of photographs and maps. Taken together, the exhibition not only highlighted how far the African-American community had advanced in less than half a century, but gave the researchers an opportunity to focus on their intellectual achievements and experience in a time when the slave era was still in living memory and “human zoos” featuring people of color from colonized countries were still a common sight, as Meier writes.

Image by Library of Congress. "The rise of the Negroes from slavery to freedom in one generation." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Assessed valuation of of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Proportion of Negroes in the total population of the United States." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Number of Negro students taking the various courses of study offered in Georgia schools." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Slaves and free Negroes." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Negro property in two cities of Georgia." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Occupations of Negroes and whites in Georgia." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. "City and rural population. 1890." (original image)

The Smithsonian Celebrates American Invention at This Weekend's Innovation Festival

Smithsonian Magazine

Creative minds working in every corner of the country—in large corporations and humble garages—are inventing the future. In honor of these folks and their inventions, the National Air and Space Museum is hosting an Innovation Festival this weekend. Inventors of a number of new technologies will share how their ideas have evolved into viable products at the two-day event, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. 

The Smithsonian recently announced a five-year collaboration with the USPTO, during which the federal agency will contribute funding for public programs and exhibitions related to American innovation at the museums. The festival is the inaugural event, and the Smithsonian and the USPTO are jointly organizing a family festival at the American Art Museum this coming spring and a major exhibition on intellectual property at the National Museum of American History in the summer of 2015. is hosting a special website with stories that highlight the innovative spirit at the Smithsonian and beyond.

With the Innovation Festival and future endeavors, the USPTO is looking to offer adults and children a chance to interact with new technologies, in the hope of inspiring future generations of inventors. This weekend, visitors will see various tools and equipment—from augmented reality to skateboards—developed by inventors and innovators within businesses, universities and the government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service will present a speedy test for detecting a plant virus, and a group from the University of South Florida will invite visitors to take its rolling dance chair for a spin; the chair gives those with disabilities a new means of artistic expression. Patent examiners that worked on the projects will be on hand to field questions about the patent process.

Smithsonian experts and others will be giving talks on the hour. David Allison, associate director of the National Museum of American History, and Bruce Kisliuk, deputy commissioner for patent administration at the USPTO, will speak about the collaboration and future programming. Pierre Comizzoli, a research scientist at the National Zoological Park, will discuss efforts to preserve cellular life at room temperature for centuries, and NASA astronaut Don Thomas will talk about how his background as a holder of two patents helped him be innovative in space.

Staff from the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will lead hands-on activities for families to enjoy. With help from the American History Museum's Spark!Lab, for instance, visitors can try their hand at designing a video game controller or a robot. 

"Through this collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, we will create a program that not only celebrates American ingenuity but also reflects the 21st century expectations of our visitors," Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said in a press release announcing the agreement in September.

This isn't the first time that the Smithsonian and USPTO have teamed up. In 2011, the USPTO helped create educational public programming to accompany "The Great American Hall of Wonders," an exhibition of art, engineering diagrams and patent models at the Smithsonian American Art Museum chronicling the science and technology that drove rapid change in the United States in the 19th century. (Fittingly, the building now housing the museum served as a patent office full of models from 1840 to 1932.) That same year, the museum also hosted "Inventing a Better Mousetrap," which featured 32 patent models that were displayed at the original patent office. The Smithsonian's Ripley Center also staged the USPTO's "The Patents and Trademarks of Steve Jobs: Art and Technology That Changed the World" in 2012. 

The Innovation Festival will be held this Saturday, November 1, and Sunday, November 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the National Air and Space Museum. 

The Strange Story of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher

Smithsonian Magazine

Van de Graaff generators can be found throughout the country in classrooms and museums. The small orbs full of static electricity are commonly used to demonstrate how electricity works and wow visitors by making their hair stand on end. But as the residents of Forest Hills, Pennsylvania can tell you, they're good for much more than that. 

For almost 80 years, the Westinghouse Atom Smasher was a landmark in Forest Hills, which is now a suburb of Pittsburgh. Towering 65 feet in the air, it was part of a complex operated by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s research facility. “The atom smasher was the centerpiece of the first large-scale program in nuclear physics established in industry,” writes the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

It operated from 1937 until 1958, writes Jill Harkins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as late as 2015—when the atom smasher was knocked over—many residents of Forest Hills still saw the bulb as representative of the atomic age and their own childhood.

But the atom smasher was important outside of Forest Hills as well. It helped to establish Westinghouse’s involvement with the non-weapons applications of nuclear technology. By 1941, Westinghouse was producing pure uranium at the facility, according to the Senator John Heinz History Center. The innovations that took place at the atom smasher went on to make Westinghouse the nuclear power player it still is today:Westinghouse built the generating plant for the first commercial-scale nuclear power facility, which was located in Shippenport, another town in Pennsylvania.

Today we call atom smashers “particle accelerators” or colliders. But it was the 1930s and understanding of nuclear physics was still pretty remedial in the general population. A Popular Science article from July 1937 about the Westinghouse facility declared, “Huge generator to smash atoms,” providing a diagram.

It worked like any of the smaller generators  invented by Robert J. Van de Graaff in 1929: by static electricity. The collider used a fabric belt that rotated very fast, creating friction and up to five million volts of electricity, which was used to speed up particles. These high-energy particles were guided to hit targeted atoms, splitting them (or “smashing” them) to create nuclear energy. In celebration of Van de Graaff's birthday, we're telling you how his invention was used in the Atomic Age. 

“The steady voltage of the generator, its chief advantage over other types of accelerators, allowed the reactions to be measured precisely, thus contributing to basic knowledge of nuclear physics,” writes the IEEE. “Research with the atom smasher in 1940 led to the discovery of the photo-fission of uranium, part of the process involved in the generation of nuclear power.” The Westinghouse Atom Smasher wasn't the only one built using the Van de Graaff design, but it was the first. 

But although the atom smasher occupies an important place in local history and American nuclear history, in 2015 the iconic bulb fell. A Washington developer who had purchased the Westinghouse site in 2012 planned to build apartments on the site, Harkins writes. The developer said that the atom smasher would be placed on a new concrete pedestal and repainted, but as of December 4 a local citizens interest group wrote that the atom smasher wasn’t going anywhere yet. Earlier in the year, Bob Hazen wrote for Pittsburgh’s Action 4 News that the iconic bulb was still lying on its side at the demolition site.

As of this holiday season, though, the Westinghouse Atom Smasher is preserved in Pittsburgh as a model that's part of the Carnegie Science Center miniature railroad.

The World Has Millions of Colors. Why Do We Only Name a Few?

Smithsonian Magazine

People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors. But human language categorizes these into a small set of words. In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. That’s what we have in American English.

Maybe if you’re an artist or an interior designer, you know specific meanings for as many as 50 or 100 different words for colors – like turquoise, amber, indigo or taupe. But this is still a tiny fraction of the colors that we can distinguish.

Interestingly, the ways that languages categorize color vary widely. Nonindustrialized cultures typically have far fewer words for colors than industrialized cultures. So while English has 11 words that everyone knows, the Papua-New Guinean language Berinmo has only five, and the Bolivian Amazonian language Tsimane’ has only three words that everyone knows, corresponding to black, white and red.

The goal of our project was to understand why cultures vary so much in their color word usage.


The most widely accepted explanation for the differences goes back to two linguists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. In their early work in the 1960s, they gathered color-naming data from 20 languages. They observed some commonalities among sets of color terms across languages: If a language had only two terms, they were always black and white; if there was a third, it was red; the fourth and fifth were always green and yellow (in either order); the sixth was blue; the seventh was brown; and so on.

Based on this order, Berlin and Kay argued that certain colors were more salient. They suggested that cultures start by naming the most salient colors, bringing in new terms one at a time, in order. So black and white are the most salient, then red, and so on.

While this approach seemed promising, there are several problems with this innate vision-based theory.

Berlin, Kay and their colleagues went on to gather a much larger data set, from 110 nonindustrialized languages. Their original generalization isn’t as clear in this larger data set: there are many exceptions, which Kay and his colleagues have tried to explain in a more complicated vision-based theory.

What’s more, this nativist theory doesn’t address why industrialization, which introduced reliable, stable and standardized colors on a large scale, causes more color words to be introduced. The visual systems of people across cultures are the same: in this model, industrialization should make no difference on color categorization, which was clearly not the case.


Our research groups therefore explored a completely different idea: Perhaps color words are developed for efficient communication. Consider the task of simply naming a color chip from some set of colors. In our study, we used 80 color chips, selected from Munsell colors to be evenly spaced across the color grid. Each pair of neighboring colors is the same distance apart in terms of how different they appear. The speaker’s task is to simply label the color with a word (“red,” “blue” and so on).

Participants had to communicate one of the 80 color chip choices from across the color grid. (Richard Futrell and Edward Gibson, CC BY)

To evaluate the communication-based idea, we need to think of color-naming in simple communication terms, which can be formalized by information theory. Suppose the color I select at random is N4. I choose a word to label the color that I picked. Maybe the word I choose is “blue.” If I had picked A3, I would have never said “blue.” And if I had picked M3, maybe I would have said “blue,” maybe “green” or something else.

Now in this thought experiment, you as a listener are trying to guess which physical color I meant. You can choose a whole set of color chips that you think corresponds to my color “blue.” Maybe you pick a set of 12 color chips corresponding to all those in columns M, N and O. I say yes, because my chip is in fact one of those. Then you split your set in half and guess again.

The number of guesses it takes the ideal listener to zero in on my color chip based on the color word I used is a simple score for the chip. We can calculate this score – the number of guesses or “bits” – using some simple math from the way in which many people label the colors in a simple color-labeling task. Using these scores, we can now rank the colors across the grid, in any language.

In English, it turns out that people can convey the warm colors – reds, oranges and yellows – more efficiently (with fewer guesses) than the cool colors – blues and greens. You can see this in the color grid: There are fewer competitors for what might be labeled “red,” “orange” or “yellow” than there are colors that would be labeled “blue” or “green.” This is true in spite of the fact that the grid itself is perceptually more or less uniform: The colors were selected to completely cover the most saturated colors of the Munsell color space, and each pair of neighboring colors looks equally close, no matter where they are on the grid.

We found that this generalization is true in every language in the entire World Color Survey (110 languages) and in three more that we did detailed experiments on: English, Spanish and Tsimane’.

Each row orders the color chips for one language: Colors farther left are easier to communicate, those farther to the right are harder to communicate. (Richard Futrell, CC BY)

It’s clear in a visual representation, where each row is an ordering of the color chips for a particular language. The left-to-right ordering is from easiest to communicate (fewest guesses needed to get the right color) to hardest to communicate.

The diagram shows that all languages have roughly the same order, with the warm colors on the left (easy to communicate) and the cool ones on the right (harder to communicate). This generalization occurs in spite of the fact that languages near the bottom of the figure have few terms that people use consistently, while languages near the top (like English and Spanish) have many terms that most people use consistently.


In addition to discovering this remarkable universal across languages, we also wanted to find out what causes it. Recall that our idea is that maybe we introduce words into a language when there is something that we want to talk about. So perhaps this effect arises because objects – the things we want to talk about – tend to be warm-colored.

We evaluated this hypothesis in a database of 20,000 photographs of objects that people at Microsoft had decided contained objects, as distinct from backgrounds. (This data set is available to train and test computer vision systems that are trying to learn to identify objects.) Our colleagues then determined the specific boundaries of the object in each image and where the background was.

We mapped the colors in the images onto our set of 80 colors across the color space. It turned out that indeed objects are more likely to be warm-colored, while backgrounds are cool-colored. If an image’s pixel fell within an object, it was more likely to correspond to a color that was easier to communicate. Objects’ colors tended to fall further to the left on our ranked ordering of communicative efficiency.

When you think about it, this doesn’t seem so surprising after all. Backgrounds are sky, water, grass, trees: all cool-colored. The objects that we want to talk about are warm-colored: people, animals, berries, fruits and so on.

Our hypothesis also easily explains why more color terms come into a language with industrialization. With increases in technology come improved ways of purifying pigments and making new ones, as well as new color displays. So we can make objects that differ based only on color – for instance, the new iPhone comes in “rose gold” and “gold” – which makes color-naming even more useful.

So contrary to the earlier nativist visual salience hypothesis, the communication hypothesis helped identify a true cross-linguistic universal – warm colors are easier to communicate than cool ones – and it easily explains the cross-cultural differences in color terms. It also explains why color words often come into a language not as color words but as object or substance labels. For instance, “orange” comes from the fruit; “red” comes from Sanskrit for blood. In short, we label things that we want to talk about.

The dueling designs for the modern x-ray tube in World War I

National Museum of American History

Twenty years before the start of World War I, a new "light" that could pass through a human body revealing its underlying structures caused a public sensation. Within a few years, the x-ray had become a standard worldwide diagnostic tool in medicine. The early equipment used to produce the x-rays was unstable and difficult to use, but scientists Julius Lilienfeld of Germany and William Coolidge of America found solutions independent of each other at essentially the same time. Their similar, sometimes competing, work during World War I resulted in the x-ray technology we use today.

A scientific device sits against a black background. A thick shield of glass obscures the details of the device. It sits on a silver pedestal.X-ray setup, around 1918, currently on display in “Modern Medicine and the Great War.” In 1913 Coolidge introduced a more reliable and rugged x-ray tube that was adopted by the military for the war. The thick glass shield helped protect staff from x-ray exposure.
X-rays result from the energy released from fast moving electrons striking a hard target. In the earliest equipment, these electrons came from a small amount of gas, held at very low pressure, inside a glass tube. The technical problem: as the gas slowly depleted in the tube, the gas pressure dropped, along with the x-ray output. Operators would often compensate for this by increasing the electrical power to the tube, but this degraded the imaging quality of the x-rays and increased the rate at which the gas depleted.
Years before, Thomas Edison—among others—had shown that when a wire is heated to incandescence, it spontaneously emits electrons. Lilienfeld was the first to use this idea to solve the x-ray tube problem. He placed a wire that could be heated by an electric current inside an older style x-ray tube. When heated, the wire gave off electrons that would supplement the electrons produced in the gas. Lilienfeld claimed that the tubes could operate even when the gas was completely depleted. He made several refinements and filed a series of patents in Germany and the U.S. between 1911 and 1914.
William Coolidge, while working at the General Electric laboratory in Schenectady, New York, had essentially the same idea, and filed his first patent application in May 1913. His design required a tube with a very high vacuum; this ensured that all of the electrons came from the hot wire rather than from any residual gas in the tube. In a scientific paper describing his work, Coolidge credited Lilienfeld for being the first to introduce a heated wire inside an x-ray tube, but criticized him for not having achieved a sufficiently good vacuum. Lilienfeld soon responded with a somewhat indignant reply in the same journal.
A diagram of what looks like a light bulb with necks at each end. Inside there are some sorts of skinny, rod like implements, extending from each neck but which do not meet.The Coolidge Tube. This drawing is from the 1918 United States Army X-Ray Manual published by the United States Surgeon General's Office (page 32, figure 6).
A glass implement that looks like a specialized light bulb, there's a sphere in the center with long skinny rods extending from each end.General Electric Coolidge Tube, around 1918. Gift of University of Maryland, University Hospital, Department of Radiology, MG.M-08013.
A patent drawing of the Lilienfeld Tube. It looks like two bulbs afixed to each other.Lilienfeld Tube. Drawing of U.S. Patent 1,218,423.
No matter the critical exchange between the two men, the U.S. Army embraced the Coolidge tube for use in x-rays and trained hundreds of physicians and technicians at the Camp Greenleaf School of Roentgenology in Georgia. By the end of the war, nearly 4,000 Coolidge tubes had been shipped to the war front for use by the U.S., British, and French military physicians.
Lilienfeld's patent rights were seized under the authority of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 and sold to a private entity, The Chemical Foundation, which in turn sued General Electric for patent infringement. Lilienfeld came to the U.S. in the early 1920s to defend his patent rights but General Electric ultimately prevailed. The basic Coolidge high vacuum tube remains the standard design in all modern medical and dental x-ray equipment.
Lilienfeld went on to receive a number of patents in electronics and achieve international recognition. Despite their knowledge of one another's inventions, which both modernized the use of x-ray technology, it is not clear if the two scientists ever met.
Eric Kearsley is a volunteer working in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. He has also blogged about an abstract artist and his World War I X-Ray Car.
museum volunteer Eric Kearsley
Posted Date: 
Monday, January 29, 2018 - 17:15
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The first six books of the elements of Euclid, in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners by Oliver Byrne, surveyor of her Majesty's settlements in the Falkland Islands and author of numberous mathematical works

Smithsonian Libraries

Color title vignette illustrates Pythagora's Theorem

Presents Euclid's proofs using color pictures

Errata: page xxix

Text illustrated with geometric diagrams printed from woodblocks in red, blue, ochre, and black; four-line ornamental white woodcut initials on black criblé background, probably made for this edition by Mary Byfield, a Chiswick Press wood-engraver

Keynes, G. William Pickering, page 37, 65

McLean, R. Victorian book design and colour printing, page 53 (plate), 70

Printing and the mind of man (2nd edition), part 2, numbers 150

Also available online

Also available online.


SCDIRB copy (39088000863027) has bookplate: Burndy Library, gift of Bern Dibner

SCDIRB copy has pencilled inscription on 2nd front free endpaper: Frederick W. Roberton, on his fifteenth birthday, from his father, March 4, 1891

SCDIRB copy half bound in brown leathers, gilt rules on covers, title in gilt on spine, marbled endpapers

"Byrne ... considered that it might be easier to learn geometry if colors were substituted for the letters usually used to designate the angles and lines of geometric figures. Instead of referring to, say, 'angle ABC,' Byrne's text substituted a blue or yellow or red section equivalent to similarly colored sections in the theorem's main diagram."--Friedman

"Each proposition is set in Caslon italic, with a four line initial engraved on wood by Mary Byfield: the rest of the page is a unique riot of red, yellow and blue: on same pages letters and numbers only are printed in colour, sprinkled over the page like tiny wild flowers, demanding the most meticulous register: elsewhere, solid squares, triangles, and circles are printed in gaudy and theatrical colours, attaining a verve not seen again on book pages till the days of Dufy, Matisse and Derain."--McLean, Victorian book design and colour printing

The violin. Vol. 1 [sound recording] / played by Hyman Bress

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes by Hyman Bress, including a diagram of instruments in the violin family and a list of violin music composers, (6 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

The violin. Vol. 2 [sound recording] / played by Hyman Bress ; accompanied by Charles Reiner

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes by Hyman Bress, including a diagram of instruments in the violin family and a list of violin music composers, (6 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Hyman Bress, violin; Charles Reiner, piano.

There's No Snoozing in Class With This Chemistry App

Smithsonian Magazine

STEM education—that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—receives a lot of attention for its importance, especially as jobs in STEM fields are ever more available and necessary. But Justin Weinberg, the creator of an interactive chemistry app called Chem101, says that even before starting a career in science or technology, students often find the basic lecture-hall and standardized-test teaching format for STEM subjects to be clunky and uninspiring.

While e-books have entered some classrooms, STEM instruction has remained unchanged for nearly as long as the subjects have been taught. With his interactive app, Weinberg, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, hopes to inspire a new kind of classroom engagement.

Chem101, his first subject-specific tool, allows students to interact with and respond to an instructor in real time, and receive automated feedback to use in later classroom discussions. Take a topic that vexes a lot of first-year chemistry students: Lewis structures. Lewis structures, also known as Lewis dot diagrams, are two-dimensional drawings that show how molecules in an element are connected, as well as the shape of the molecule. During a lecture, students can use 101 to practice drawing these structures, which educators can then view, review and correct if needed. After a pilot study last fall, the app is being used at several major U.S. universities with much favorable feedback.

Weinberg talked to about his vision for transforming STEM education from a passive to an interactive process.

Where did the idea for 101 originate? 

Many of the ideas and hypotheses in 101 are based from my own teaching experience. I’ve been teaching forms of STEM for nearly a decade as both a private tutor and a university teaching assistant at Carnegie Mellon, where I am currently a PhD candidate in chemical engineering. Needless to say, I’ve witnessed the struggles that so many students have when they take math and science courses in college.  

The real inspiration came from when I co-created a chemistry tutoring app called Chem Pro, which achieved over 500,000 downloads organically. The fact that so many students were seeking help outside of their courses made me realize that the way STEM courses are being taught is fundamentally broken. Over time, that realization has turned into 101’s mission, which is to transform the STEM lecture from a passive learning experience to an active learning experience.

Justin Weinberg, founder and CEO at 101 (101)

How did your experience as a STEM student and teacher influence the app build and design?

The biggest influence on Chem101’s design actually came from the existing products on the market, because they taught us what not to do. The truth is that online STEM interactives, such as modules for drawing chemical structures, are not new and have actually been around for roughly 20 years. However, these interactives are often so hard to navigate and frustrating to use for students that they only make it more difficult for them to understand STEM concepts. That’s why our number one goal is to make our interactives as easy to use as possible. Education technology should make it more likely for students to succeed, not make it more difficult.

Why start with chemistry?

Simply because it’s what our team knows best. Independent of our team, chemistry is a great starting point because it is notorious for causing student frustration and high failure and dropout rates in college courses.

What's the user experience for students and educators using 101?

In the middle of a lecture, a professor uses Chem101 to create an assignment with one or more built-in problems and then pushes it out over the network to all student devices.

Students are notified of the assignment via a push notification. They open the Chem101 app and respond to the problems by completing the activities, such as drawing chemical structures, on their devices. When students submit their answers, they receive personalized feedback if they make a mistake, with the option of retrying the problem.

The professor receives the results of each problem in real-time. Chem101 provides the professor with the number of students that completed the problem correctly as well as what the three most common mistakes are. The professor can then use these results to promote a class discussion about common misconceptions.

How are students and educators responding so far?

The response from both sides has been incredible. Last fall, we piloted Chem101 with 2,000 students across 8 colleges and universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Columbia University, and the University of Cincinnati. After the pilot, 40 percent of students said using Chem101 made them more interested in chemistry, and students who learned Lewis structures using Chem101 performed up to 200 percent better compared to those who used traditional learning tools.

Is the app free for students if purchased by the institution? What's the pricing like?

Professors can opt to have their students purchase a subscription to Chem101 as part of their course fees or pay for a site license to remove the student costs. Either way, Chem101 is currently $5 per student per course.

How did you select partner institutions for the pilot study and beyond?

It’s a mix of both. At first I did a lot of reaching out to find professors willing to try out a product that had never been tested before. While we still do a good amount of that, we now get professors approaching us because they’ve heard good things about the product.

Any plans to expand to other subjects or other grade and learning levels? 

We’ll be focused on chemistry for the near future but look forward to hitting other STEM subjects soon.

These Stunning Fractals Are Made of Snow

Smithsonian Magazine

No matter how many times it happens, a newly fallen blanket of snow looks magical. But in all that white, Simon Beck sees a canvas. With careful planning, patience and many snowshoe-clad steps, he creates stunning mathematical patterns.

Beck is a snow artist who creates his art in the French Alps, writes Michele Banks for The Finch and Pea. A skier, Beck first paced out a snowflake pattern in the snow for fun more than a decade ago. When he saw it from above, perched in the chair of a ski lift, he realized he had a unique form of expression. Since then he has traced out scores of designs in the snow—from howling wolves to snowflakes and Christmas trees—but he usually sticks to mathematical patterns. 

"You can get to drawing much sooner. You are just following simple rules. You don’t have to keep referring to a diagram," he tells Alex Bellos of The Guardian. "You can do it from memory. And they just look the best."

Informed by a background in engineering and orienteering, Beck sketches out his patterns on paper and then uses a compass and pace counting to keep track of his progress, Bellos reports. A piece might take a few hours of planning indoors but up to 11 hours to actually create.

The combination of athleticism and meditation in beautiful natural environments has drawn interest from some sponsors—notably, Icebreaker created a line of merino wool clothing that features patterns inspired by Beck's work. In 2014, he published a book featuring photographs of his designs, Snow Art.

In an interview with Erin McCarthy of Mental Floss, he explains that the best patterns are fractals—or patterns that repeat multiple times at increasingly smaller scales. Though seemingly complicated, it is based on a single repeated rule. Fractals can be found throughout nature: Imagine the branching of rivers that split into streams or the delicate repeating patterns of a snowflake. Beck explains to McCarthy that beginners should start with a Sierpinski triangle, a simple fractal set.

Beck created most of his patterns in beautiful mountains settings, where reservoirs and lakes provide a mostly flat area to work. Still, he has his eye on a few other spots that are less remote. He tells Mental Floss:

[N]umber one would be the White House lawn, actually. If President Obama wanted it, I’m sure it could be arranged.

I’d also love to do the great lawn in Central Park. If the Onassis Reservoir gets frozen enough to do it, that’d be fantastic. The Buckingham Palace gardens, back in England, would be a great place to do it. Yosemite Valley—there’s quite flat areas of grasslands there. There’s no end to the possibilities.

After spending hours pacing out the design, Beck always tries to view the pattern from above—climbing a nearby peak or riding a ski lift over. Viewing these works is bittersweet since each one is fleeting. Wind or warm weather can erase the image in less time than it takes to make. Or another snowfall may wipe the canvas clean, once again ready for the next work of art.

This Necklace Contains All of the World’s Languages

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s been said that a language dies every 14 days—a loss that can wipe out an entire culture’s collective wisdom. Those losses are accelerating as globalization becomes more common and languages like English and Mandarin supersede more local forms of communication. But what if you could help preserve those dying languages with something you wear? Thanks to nanotechnology and a bit of fashion, it’s now possible, reports Ephrat Livni for Quartz, with a piece of jewelry that lets you wear all of the world’s languages around your neck.

The Rosetta Wearable Disk is wearable archive of more than 1,000 languages compressed into a pendant less than an inch wide. It’s the brainchild of the Rosetta Project, a language library initiative of the Long Now Foundation, a non-profit that fosters long-term thinking.

Embedded on the tiny disk within the necklace are over 1,000 microscopic "pages" printed on nickel using nanotechnology. The disk contains the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 327 languages and basic vocabulary lists for 719 languages. The disk also includes a book about time that serves as the foundation’s manifesto and diagrams for the foundation’s other initiative, a clock designed to run continuously for 10,000 years.

As Livni notes, the archive contained within the necklace doesn’t offer instant gratification. Rather, it’s only readable by someone with a microscope. It’ll cost you, too: The disk can’t be purchased, but rather is only available to people willing to donate $1,000 to the foundation.

The concept of preserving all of the world’s languages in a single place isn’t new. It’s been centuries since the Rosetta Stone, the ancient object inscribed with text that helped scholars decipher the languages of the ancient world and after which the project is named, changed the way humans think about language. Since then, other people have tried their hands at translating the same phrases into a variety of different languages to help preserve them, and today multiple language archives  compiled by linguists and other professionals can be found around the world.

But a wearable disk can’t stem the disappearance of spoken languages that has picked up speed in recent years. Endangered languages are dying more quickly than ever before, especially in a variety of “hot spots” like Northern Australia and the Southwest United States and among languages that have no written form. But the disk can be a reminder of the importance of preserving language—and perhaps help recover languages in the future. Who knows—maybe in the future, wearing gigantic archives of human knowledge will become a fashion statement in and of itself. Committing yourself to documenting and saving the basis of entire cultures’ contributions is so hot this season.

This is What Happens When You Ask Scientists to Explain Their PhDs in Dance

Smithsonian Magazine

To the lay person, just the titles of doctoral dissertations are downright unwieldy.  For example: "Biophysical characterization of transmembrane peptides using fluorescence." Or how about this one? "Understanding the role of MYCN in neuroblastoma using a systems biology approach." Now, for a real doozie: "Multi-axial fatigue for predicting life of mechanical components."

Luckily, Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are the glad hosts of a "Dance Your Ph.D" contest. The competition, now in its sixth consecutive year, invites scientists to describe their research not in an academic paper, lecture or diagram, but through interpretive dance. Entrants, who must have a PhD or be currently obtaining one, submit videos of their choreographed performances. (Contest rules state that while a scientist can recruit other dancers, he or she must be an active participant!)

John Bohannon, a biologist and contributing correspondent to Science, founded the contest in 2007. In its first year, "Dance Your Ph.D" took the form of a live event. Graduate students, postdocs and professors entertained an audience of 100 or 200 at the headquarters of both the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology and the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria. Two astrophysicists dressed as galaxies and performed a tango, to show how a large galaxy captures a smaller one. An archaeology student in a sparkly loin cloth demonstrated how hunter-gatherers at a Stone Age campsite in South Africa would have shared and cooked their food. "I expected that only molecular biologists would take part," wrote Bohannon in a recap of the event, published in Science in 2008. "What surprised me about the Ph.D dance contest was its diversity."

The project has since morphed into a video contest—and Bohannon, in that time, has become an outspoken proponent for using dance to communicate scientific ideas. At TEDxBrussels in November 2011, in fact, Bohannon--who Science calls the "Gonzo Scientist"--entreated scientists to take up dancing instead of Powerpoint. He stressed the power of doing so by having the Minneapolis-based dance company Black Label Movement animate his talk (watch it here!). With "Dance Your Ph.D," he said more recently, "The goal is to do away with jargon—indeed, to do away with spoken words altogether—and use human bodies to convey the essence of scientific research."

This fall, Science received 31 submissions to the 2013 contest. A panel of judges, some artists and some scientists, organized the entries into four categories: biology, chemistry, physics and social sciences. Then, with previous contest winners, they voted first on 12 finalists, based on the videos' creativity and scientific and artistic merit. From there, they recently named six winners—one in each category, a grand prize winner and a reader favorite, decided through a public poll. Each winner walks away with $500—the grand prize winner, an additional $500—and "immortal geek fame on the Internet," according to the contest's website.

And now, without further ado, the 2013 winners...enjoy!

Grand Prize and Biology Winner

Thesis: "Sperm competition between brothers and female choice"

Scientist: Cedric Tan, biologist at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Explanation: "Females of the red jungle fowl (forest chicken) mate with multiple males, which can create competition between sperm of different males in order to fertilize the egg. In my PhD thesis, I explored the effect of brotherhood on sperm competition and female choice. Interestingly, the brother of the first male that the female has mated with invests more sperm in the female than the non-brother of the first male mate. However, the female ejects a higher proportion of sperm from the brother of the first mate and favors the sperm of the non-brother, facilitating a higher fertility by the non-brother’s sperm.

In addition to the main story, we showcase some of the interesting biology of sperm. First, sperm quality differs and while some move faster and are more forward-moving, others move in circles. Second, sperm of multiple males can interact with one another, sometimes even antagonistically.

Inspired by various sports, the dance movements in this video reflect the competitive nature in the sperm world. The two original music pieces in this video are (1) ‘Animal Love’, which is about the variety of sexual behavior in different species and (2) ‘Scenester’, a piece telling the story about a girl who keeps changing her ways and males trying to keep up with her."    - Cedric Tan

Chemistry Winner

Thesis: "Biophysical characterization of transmembrane peptides using fluorescence"

Scientist: Ambalika Khadria, biochemistry PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Explanation: "Understanding bacterial growth (cell division) is important to be able to synthesize stronger antibiotics that stop the growth. When a bacterial cell divides, it pinches off at the central region leading to two new cells. This process is carried out by a concerted effort by various proteins that assemble in the cell membrane. We know that these proteins interact with each other, but aren't sure how exactly they interact and carry out division."    - Ambalika Khadria

Physics Winner

Thesis: "Multi-axial fatigue for predicting life of mechanical components"

Scientist: Timothy Hunter, Wolf Star Technologies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Explanation: "Understanding the fatigue of metals is critical in designing safe, reliable structures. Metal fatigue was first discovered in the 1850s when railroad axles would break for unknown reasons. This was the first time in human history that a mass produced item (train axles) underwent repetitive loading (carrying coal). The first attempt to understand this phenomena used constant amplitude loading to develop the Stress-Life curve. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, in order to develop lightweight structures for aerospace and NASA moon missions, the concept of constant strain testing was developed to create the more advanced Strain-Life curves for materials.

As part of my research, the Smith-Topper-Watson method for fatigue was studied. This approach combines concepts from the Stress-Life and Strain-Life models. My dissertation recognizes that energy is needed to move grains along grain boundaries, break bonds and open cracks in material. Energy is defined as force times displacement. Strain Energy is defined as stress (force intensity) times strain (displacement intensity or stretch). The Hunter Energy Life Model creates a relationship between strain energy and material life to fully capture the mechanism of failure of materials."   - Timothy Hunter

Social Science Winner

Thesis: "Sleep loss in a social world"

Scientist: Tina Sundelin, PhD student at Stockholm University, Sweden

Explanation: "The thesis is (will be!) called "Sleep loss in a social world" and contains several studies on how others perceive and react to someone who is sleep deprived, compared to when that same person has slept. First of all, when sleep deprived, subjects are perceived as more tired and less attractive. They also look sadder. Furthermore, other people are less willing to spend time with someone who hasn’t slept, possibly due to them being less attractive. Pretty much everyone gets upset if they feel others are excluding them, but according to another study in the thesis, a sleep-deprived person reacts even more strongly to social exclusion than their well-rested peers do. In short, sleep loss affects several social factors that might influence your daily interactions negatively.

The dance thus shows one day, as it would play out if the PhD student we’re watching had slept and if she hadn’t – looking more tired, feeling more upset when excluded from a meeting, having others less willing to spend time with her at lunch, and finally being less attractive when on a date, adding further insult to injury."   - Tina Sundelin

Reader Favorite

Thesis: "Understanding the role of MYCN in neuroblastoma using a systems biology approach"

Scientist: Andres Florez, PhD student at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany

Explanation: "This story is about the good guys (the super-heroes) and the bad guys (the cancer genes) and we will see how the super-heroes will save the day (and hopefully cure cancer).

Cancer appears when the cells in our body stop caring about the other cells and worry only about themselves, growing and consuming all the resources. Neuroblastoma is a cancer in children with interesting features. It’s the cancer with the highest number of patients getting cured spontaneously without any treatment and scientists still do not fully understand how. Therefore investigating this cancer might help us to find better treatments not only for Neuroblastoma, but also for other cancer types.

The story develops at 2 levels: the level of the patient (kid) and what happens at the molecular level (molecule dance). At the kid level the cells in his body are dividing normally going through all cell cycle phases (circle dance) namely; nutrient collection, duplication of genetic material and actual division. When cell cycle goes crazy, then cancer appears, meaning cells going faster trough cell cycle and never stopping division.

Now we jump to the molecular level. When there is no cancer, the 2 important molecules Rb and E2F1 are together and cells do not divide. if Growth Factor is present, Rb is inactivated giving freedom to E2F1 to start cell division. When growth factor disappears, Rb recovers and goes back together with E2F1 stopping cell division. We can think of the Rb as a brake that stops cell division, whenever the brake is released cells divide. When cancer appears things start to go crazy. MYCN is an important molecule that promotes Neuroblastoma and there are usually lots of MYCN molecules in the Neuroblastoma cells (Amplification). We know that MYCN keeps Rb and E2F1 always apart promoting division without stopping, just grow, grow and grow… The question is now, how to best fight MYCN?

To answer this question I’m using a Systems Biology approach to figure out in detail MYCN's actions. Systems biology is the combination of mathematical modeling, computer simulations and experimental data to understand complex problems in biology. Here, the Robot helps to process the complex information of MYCN actions and generates strategies of how to fight MYCNs. These strategies are “transferred” to the “treatment,” the SuperHero! (No worries, it’s not Ben Affleck). The treatment with the help of the Robot exterminates MYCN, saving the kid and making him happy again."   - Andres Florez

Thompson Matched Pair, Steam Engine Indicators

National Museum of American History
An engine indicator is an instrument for graphically recording the pressure versus piston displacement through an engine stroke cycle. Engineers use the resulting diagram to check the design and performance of the engine. The American Steam Gauge Company of Boston, MA manufactured these indicators. They are a matched pair of internal spring indicators based on a design by Joseph W. Thompson which he patented on August 31, 1875 . This design reduced the size and weight of the recording mechanism in order to allow more accurate measurements of high speed steam engines. Each of the indicators consists of a brass cylinder with internal spring and piston connected to a recording stylus and a recording drum. The piston causes the stylus to rise and fall with pressure changes in the engine under measurement thereby directly recording the indicator’s output on the paper. Around the drum’s base is wound a cord that is attached to the connecting rod of the piston on the steam engine being measured. This causes the drum to rotate as the engine’s piston moves. An internal coil spring causes the cord to retract and the drum to counter rotate back to its original position as the connecting rod returns. The result is a steam pressure-volume diagram which is used to measure the efficiency and other attributes of the steam engine.

The introduction of the steam indicator in the late 1790s and early 1800s by James Watt and others had a great impact on the understanding of how the steam behaved inside the engine's cylinder and thereby enabled much more exacting and sophisticated designs. The devices also changed how the economics and efficiency of steam engines were portrayed and marketed. They helped the prospective owner of a machine better understand how much his fuel costs would be for a given amount of work performed. Measurement of fuel consumed and work delivered by the engine was begun by Watt, who in part justified the selling price of his engines on the amount of fuel cost the purchaser might save compared to an alternate engine. In the early days of steam power, the method to compare engine performance was based on a concept termed the engine’s “duty”. It originally was calculated as the number of pounds of water raised one foot high per one bushel of coal consumed. The duty method was open to criticism due to its inability to take into consideration finer points of efficiency in real world applications of engines . Accurate determination of fuel used in relation to work performed has been fundamental to the design and improvement of all steam-driven prime movers ever since Watt’s time. And, the steam indicators’ key contribution was the accurate measurements of performance while the engine was actually doing the work it was designed to do. This Thompson steam indicator set represented over one hundred years of evolution and improvement of the devices. Its ability to make simultaneous recordings of two cylinders on a high speed steam engine was a significant improvement for many applications.

Thompson Steam Engine Indicator

National Museum of American History
The American Steam Gauge Co. of Boston, Massachusetts, manufactured this steam engine indicator, serial number 1875. J.W. Thompson patented this style of indicator on August 31, 1875, patent number 167,364.

An engine indicator is an instrument for graphically recording the pressure versus piston displacement through an engine stroke cycle. Engineers use the resulting diagram to check the design and performance of the engine.

A mechanical indicator consists of a piston, spring, stylus, and recording system. The gas pressure of the cylinder deflects the piston and pushes against the spring, creating a linear relationship between the gas pressure and the deflection of the piston against the spring. The deflection is recorded by the stylus on a rotating drum that is connected to the piston. Most indicators incorporate a mechanical linkage to amplify the movement of the piston to increase the scale of the record.

When the ratio of the frequency of the pressure variation to the natural frequency of the system is small, then the dynamic deflection is equal to the static deflection. To design a system with a high natural frequency, the mass of the piston, spring, stylus, and mechanical linkage must be small, but the stiffness of the spring must be high. The indicator is subjected to high temperatures and pressures and rapid oscillations, imposing a limitation on the reduction in mass. Too stiff a spring will result in a small displacement of the indicator piston and a record too small to measure with accuracy. Multiplication of the displacement will introduce mechanical ad dynamic errors.

The parameters of the problem for designing an accurate and trouble free recorder are such that there is no easy or simple solution. Studying the variety of indicators in the collection shows how different inventors made different compromises in their designs.
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