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Reviews: Institute and Museum of the History of Science

Discover Magazine reviews the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy and more.

Nov 1, 2002 6:00 AMApr 27, 2023 3:31 PM


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Nov 2002 Museums

Institute and Museum of the History of Science Florence, Italy

On the north bank of the Arno River in Florence, in a small, second-story room in a building more than eight centuries old, is an object that can send shivers down your spine, even on a warm Tuscan morning. Not shivers of fear but of amazement. It is a small thing, not much larger than a half-dollar coin, yet it changed the world: the lens from Galileo's first telescope. Through it Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the mountains and valleys of Earth's moon; he discovered that the Milky Way consists of innumerable stars. No one who put an eye to this small piece of glass could doubt that Earth had been displaced from the center of creation. The lens is one of the crown jewels of science, sheltered now in a museum not far from where Galileo was kept under house arrest by the Inquisition for eight years until his death in 1642.

Florence's Institute and Museum of the History of Science is itself a gem. Housed in the Palazzo Castellani, a 12th-century castle, the museum charts the birth of modern science, from its tenuous origin in the medieval Islamic world to its flowering in Florence, where the Renaissance began. In a city that is home to Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and 15th-century architect Filippo Brunelleschi's magnificent cupola atop the Duomo cathedral, the elegant repository of science treasures is overlooked by many visitors. Don't make that mistake. The museum is quiet and uncrowded; its windows overlook the Arno, providing a view not much changed since Galileo's day. And a 90-minute visit will allow you to feast your eyes on tools used by Michelangelo, priceless scientific antiques collected by the powerful Medici family, and a millennium of history.

Every few paces in the museum take you past decades, if not centuries, of scientific achievement. The first room you enter contains an early sextant, perhaps used by an Arab sailor aboard a ship exploring the uncharted coast of Africa. Nearby are dozens more exquisite Arabic instruments, some of them nearly a thousand years old: sundials, navigational tools, and celestial globes etched with the constellations, all from a time when scientific instruments were painstakingly crafted works of art, often owned and used by princes. With these tools, Arab scholars made the first accurate maps of the sky, and so the universe became a larger place.

The designers of these beautiful objects realized, perhaps for the first time in history, that to understand the world, one had to measure it; religious faith and pure philosophy were not enough. Perhaps the most striking object in the entire collection is something else that once belonged to Galileo: the middle finger of his right hand. Set like a rare jewel in a delicate glass egg atop a foot-long marble column, the upright finger seems to gesture defiantly across the ages, a fitting rebuke to the injustices that Galileo endured at the hands of the religious ideologues who carried out the Inquisition. Etched into the marble stand that supports Galileo's finger, a Latin inscription reads: "This is the finger with which the illustrious hand covered the heavens and indicated their immense space. It pointed to new stars with the marvelous instrument, made of glass, and revealed them to the senses."

Nov 2002 Science Books

The sometimes perilous search for rare dinosaur bones can make for great adventures, as evidenced by the following accounts of two of the most extraordinary paleontological discoveries in recent years: Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life by Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan (Invisible Cities Press, $26.95) is the strange but true story of Sue, an almost perfectly preserved female Tyrannosaurus rex unearthed in 1990 in a South Dakota hillside claimed by a Native American tribe. Larson, the leader of the dino-hunting group that found Sue, and Donnan, a journalist, offer a firsthand account of the discovery as well as the subsequent four-year legal battle over ownership of the bones. Ultimately, Sue is acquired for $8.36 million by the Chicago Field Museum, and Larson is jailed in another legal dustup over fossils.

The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by William Nothdurft, et al. (Random House, $24.95) chronicles the 2001 discovery of Paralititan stromeri, an 80-foot-long, 70-ton, plant-eating beast that ranks as the second-largest dinosaur ever to walk the planet. Led by Josh Smith, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, the fossil hunters brave blinding sandstorms in search of a dinosaur graveyard in Egypt that was unearthed in 1911 by German paleontologist Ernst Stromer but lost after World War II bombs destroyed his excavation records. A companion documentary premieres October 8 on the A&E cable network. — Maia Weinstock

Nov 2002 Books

Particle Weirdness A mathematician explores a quantum world that even Einstein called spooky

By Laurence Marschall

Entanglement By Amir D. Aczel Four Walls Eight Windows, $25

In the world you and I inhabit, no two snowflakes are exactly the same, and, like it or not, we can never be in two places at the same time. But in the world of quantum mechanics, the microscopic realm described by mathematician Amir D. Aczel in his new book, Entanglement, distinctions of "this" and "that," of "here" and "there," are not so clear. A single object can appear to be two; two objects can act as one. Take a simple example: An atom emits two gamma rays simultaneously, one speeding off toward the east, the other toward the west. In the strangely random world of quantum mechanics, even nature itself doesn't know the properties of these particles until an observer measures them. And by the very act of measuring the particle, the observer determines the particle's properties. But here's where things get really weird: Once you determine how the eastward gamma ray is vibrating—up or down or side to side—you know instantaneously how the westward gamma ray is vibrating, even if it is half a universe away. Quantum laws require that the two particles be treated as the same entity; by measuring the properties of one particle in an entangled system, you somehow forge a rigid link with the other, no matter how distant it is. This is the essence of entanglement, one of the characteristically bizarre features of the quantum world that allows a signal to travel at infinite speed, faster by far than the speed of light. Albert Einstein, who was particularly troubled by this violation of the universal speed limit, called it "spooky action at a distance" and regarded it as evidence that quantum mechanics was a flawed theory, due for a complete overhaul.

Photograph by Jens Mortensen

That overhaul has never occurred. As recounted by Aczel, the theoretical and experimental basis for quantum mechanics has grown ever stronger. In the 1960s, Irish physicist John Bell proposed a way to put entanglement to the test, and in the last few decades, clever experimenters around the world have successfully applied his method. In the 1990s, Swiss physicist Nicholas Gisin sent laser beams in opposite directions down fiber-optic telephone lines and then simultaneously determined the properties of the pairs of outrushing photons when they were 10 miles apart—proof that an entangling signal traveled at least 10 million times the speed of light.

Results like this naturally raise questions of whether instantaneous messages could be sent through space or whether teleportation (as in "beam me up, Scotty") might be achieved. Aczel is careful to weed out the crazy ideas from the bold ones and provides some thoughtful comments on why we may never be able to communicate faster than light or teleport anything even as small as a flea. Indeed, entanglement may have few practical effects beyond the subatomic domain. Yet it remains one of the knottiest problems in theoretical physics, raising tantalizing questions about the very nature of reality.

Nov 2002 Exhibitions

Very, Very Small Is Beautiful

Photomicrographers revel in scenes of tiny grandeur.

Photograph by Alan Opsahl, Pharmacia, Skokie, il. Twentieth place in the 2002 Nikon International Small World Competition.

Victor Hugo once said, "Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the grander view?" In either case, the excitement of discovery lies in being able to see what would otherwise be invisible to the eye. Under a powerful microscope, science and art converge; even everyday objects can reveal an unexpected beauty. This is the inspiration behind the 2002 Nikon International Small World Competition in photomicrography, now in its 28th year. The image below, of a rat's tongue—magnified 170 times—was one of this year's winning submissions. Alan Opsahl, a research scientist at Pharmacia, the Illinois-based pharmaceutical company, used an Olympus microscope and a technique called dark-field microscopy to photograph digitally the stained cross section of rat tissue.

A yearlong exhibition of all the winning images will begin December 1 at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and then travel around the country. A 2003 calendar will be published this fall. For more information, go to www.nikonusa.com.

Nov 2002 Science Books

Measured Deception

The metric system is the precise embodiment of human error.

By Margaret Foley

The Measure of All Things:The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World By Ken Alder The Free Press, $27

Although the United States (along with Myanmar and Liberia) still clings stubbornly to antiquated measurements in ounces, gallons, and yards, the rest of the world has long thrown in its lot with the metric system, universally accepted as the common currency of science and an emblem of dispassionate precision. Yet the meter's early years did not lack for passion, and the meter itself is not the paragon of precision its designers intended but is derived instead from erroneous data. Historian Ken Alder's account of the metric system's origins reveals how the ambitious, high-minded quest to determine the meter's precise length was compromised at the outset by human error and pride. The meter was born amid the chaos of the French Revolution, a period in which change came rapidly, creatively, and brutally. Standardization of measures was just one of many revolution-era reforms, along with the less successful 10-day week, the 10-hour clock, and the 400-degree circle. Prerevolutionary France had an estimated 250,000 different measurements, which varied from town to town and were rooted in tradition as well as practicality. A field may have been measured not by length but by its yield or how long it might take a man to harvest it or how many bushels of seed were required to sow it. And the size of that bushel might differ in the next village. While these discrepancies hampered commerce and caused confusion, they also maintained regional loyalty and served as a form of protectionism: Only tradesmen who understood the local measures could easily conduct business.

Photograph by Jens Mortensen

In 1790 the National Assembly voted to sweep away this chaotic swirl of measures and institute a new standard—the meter. In keeping with Enlightenment ideals of reason and universality, this new measure would be based on the size of the earth and would be defined as one ten-millionth the length of the quarter meridian, from the North Pole to the equator. The Commission of Weights and Measures dispatched two respected astronomers, Pierre-François-André Méchain and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, on a mission to measure the meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona. From their findings, astronomers would calculate the length of the quarter meridian on which the meter's ultimate length would be based.

For seven years, the two astronomers meticulously triangulated their way through France, Méchain heading south and Delambre working his way north. Their task was formidable. They were traversing a country in turmoil during dangerous times, at the mercy of a disordered, newly empowered populace that was unsympathetic to the move toward standardization. Triangulation, the method by which the astronomers measured the meridian's length, involved surveying a network of triangles straddling the meridian. Each observation station, or vertex of a triangle, had to be high enough to allow at least three other stations to be sighted, and each set of measurements required repeated observations. If poor weather conditions compromised visibility, a set of measurements from one point could take weeks. Méchain and Delambre, braving cold, wind, and fatigue, ascended extinct volcanoes, jerry-built wooden structures, and cathedral towers. To observe from Mount Bugarach, in southern France, the short, sedentary Méchain made a two-hour climb every day for 10 days, "scrambling up the slope on his hands and knees, hanging onto shrubs and dwarf trees for balance." At one location, Delambre had workers prune back 600 trees to clear the sight lines between two points.

Despite the rigor with which Méchain tackled his measurements, he was unable to reconcile a series of observations for his southernmost latitude. Believing his numbers to be in error and his reputation in jeopardy, he recalculated and ultimately falsified his data. Upon Méchain's death, after the definitive meter had already been enshrined in a platinum bar, his papers were delivered to Delambre, who discovered that Méchain had suppressed and doctored his numbers. Delambre recalculated Méchain's data and published a cleaner set of tables. He then had Méchain's manuscripts deposited in the Observatory of Paris archives, along with their private correspondence, which he had placed under seal.

Today we define this same meter with even more exactitude, as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Yet, as Alder reminds us, this standard of precision owes its existence to a time of political upheaval and its actual length to the imperfections of a troubled man.

From The Measure of All Things:

"The platinum meter had been constructed; the metric system had been published and made law. The metal bar sat contentedly in its triple-locked box in the National Archives. The bar did not equal the meter; it was the meter. What did it now matter that the data that had gone into its making had been erroneous? What should Delambre reveal?"

Nov 2002 Science Toys

Mathematics in a Bottle Turning geometry inside out

By Jennifer Kahn

Klein Bottles Basic Bottle, $30-50 Klein Stein, $80

An ordinary bottle, as everyone knows, has an inside and an outside. But a Klein Bottle, conceived by the German mathematician Felix Klein in 1882, consists of a single continuous surface, similar to a Möbius strip. If you walked along its surface, you wouldn't experience anything other than a flat road, although you'd pass seamlessly from the inside to the outside and back again.

The Klein Bottles, at left, measure seven to four-and-a-half inches high. You can swig beer from the Klein stein mug, at right. Photograph by Jens Mortensen

Since its conception, the idea of the Klein Bottle has held a special fascination for mathematicians, but no one had actually ventured to make one out of glass until 1997. That year, Cliff Stoll, an enterprising astrophysicist, decided to manufacture and market this topological marvel—or, rather, an approximation of one, since the real thing can exist only in the non-Euclidean realm of four spatial dimensions. Stoll hired a glassblower and gave him precise instructions: Cut a small hole in the bottom of a Pyrex flask; stretch the neck of the flask upward, then curve it so that it pierces back through the side of the bottle and connects to the hole in the bottom. Stoll took his finished product into the University of California at Berkeley math department, where a mathematician recognized it immediately and exclaimed, "I want one!" After a second bottle got snapped up, Acme Klein Bottle Inc. was born.

Before starting Acme, Stoll was best known for having spent one year tracking down a notorious computer hacker in the 1980s, then chronicling his pursuit in a best-selling book, The Cuckoo's Egg. Now, however, Stoll spends large chunks of his time peddling bottles at American Math Society meetings and expanding his inventory. Besides the basic Klein Bottle, Acme now also sells small Klein beer steins (ein kleines Klein Stein, in German), as well as knit wool Klein hats and matching Möbius scarves in cheerful colors. "I have a tighter monopoly than Bill Gates," jokes Stoll, "and a better market share than Cisco."

Nov 2002 Science Best-sellers

1. Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and The Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II By Jennet Conant, Simon & Schuster

2. A New Kind of Science By Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Media

3. The Universe in a NutshellBy Stephen Hawking, Bantam

4. Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation By Olivia Judson, Metropolitan Books

5. The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainabililty By Fritjof Capra, Doubleday

6. The Hunt for Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity Technology By Nick Cook, Broadway

7. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe By By Stephen Hawking, New Millennium Press

8. A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable By John Steele Gordon, Walker & Company

9. God in the Equation: How Einstein Became the Prophet of the New Religious Era By Corey S. Powell, The Free Press

This author, a Discover senior editor, explores Einstein's theory of relativity.

10. Ice Age By John and Mary Gribbin, Barnes & Noble Books

* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

We also like... BOOKS

The Ghost With Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species

Scott Weidensaul North Point Press, $26

Weidensaul, a peripatetic naturalist, provides a vibrant account of his travels through Brazil, Saint Lucia, Australia, and elsewhere in quest of the Tasmanian tiger, Semper's Warbler, and other animals that biologists have classified—perhaps erroneously—as extinct.

The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

Michael Shnayerson and Mark J. Plotkin Little, Brown, $24.95

Fifty years ago, the United States produced 2 million pounds of antibiotics annually; by 2000, that amount grew to more than 50 million. As a result, more than 40,000 Americans now die each year from exposure to bacteria that have developed resistance to drugs. Plotkin, an ethnobotanist, and Shnayerson describe the ongoing war with these super-bugs.

The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think

Robert Aunger The Free Press, $27

Memes are ideas or behaviors that get replicated via spoken words, images, or various other forms of communication. Aunger, an anthropologist, contends that memes are "thought genes" that begin as tiny electric charges in the brain and end up determining the evolution of ideas in society.

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation Olivia Judson Metropolitan Books, $24

A biologist explains the complex, salacious sexual traits of chimpanzees, spotted hyenas, and other animals. Written drolly in the form of an advice column—"I'm supposed to be a solitary bee, but I can't get any time to myself," begins one letter—the book emphasizes the female's role in mating practices. — Maia Weinstock and Rebecca Reisner

We also like... TELEVISION

Galileo's Battle for the Heavens PBS, October 29, 8 p.m. EST

Based on Dava Sobel's best-seller Galileo's Daughter, this two-hour NOVA special chronicles Galileo's struggle to reconcile the philosophical divisions between the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the implications of his newly formed theory of a sun-centered solar system.

Secrets of the Dead: Mystery of the Black Death

PBS, October 30, 8 p.m. EST

A mysterious and powerful agent gave some citizens of a small English town in the 1600s resistance to the devastating black-plague epidemic. Centuries later, this same agent may hold the key to new treatments for the deadly AIDS virus.

Volcano's Deadly Warning PBS, November 12, 8 p.m. EST

Geologist Bernard Chouet found a predictable pattern in the earth's tremors that can signal impending volcanic eruptions. This NOVA episode documents how ignoring the warning signs that Chouet mapped out spelled tragedy in the Colombian Andes in 1993. — Maia Weinstock

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