Science & Society

The Dawn of Crystallography

Of all the experimental sciences used to determine the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids, crystallography is by far the best. Modern crystallographers use a process called x-ray crystallography to study the structure of crystalline molecules, but the pioneers of this science had no such fancy technology. Instead they did it the old fashioned way, which for them was actually the new fashioned way because they were literally making it up as they went.

Kepler Creates Crystallography (Kinda)

One of the first notable hypotheses on crystallography comes from the famous German mathematician  and astronomer Johannes “Big Bad John” Kepler. In his 1611 writing, A New Year’s Gift of Hexagonal Snow (roughly translated from the German), Kepler hypothesized that the hexagonal symmetry of snowflakes was due to the regular packing of spherical water particles.


More than half a century later, in 1669, Danish scientist Nicolas “Big Nick” Steno conducted the first experimental investigations of crystal symmetry. Steno found that the angles between the faces of a particular type of crystal are the same across all examples of said crystal.

Haüy No Haüy

More than a full century later, in 1784, the French mineralogist and “Father of Modern Crystallography” René Just “Big René” Haüy discovered that simple stacking patterns of blocks of the same shape and size can be used to describe every face of a given crystal. Haüy’s work led to the further discovery that crystals are constructed on a regular, repeating three-dimensional array of atoms/molecules, in which a single unit cell repeats indefinitely along three principal, and not necessarily perpendicular, directions.

Building off these discoveries, in 1839 Welsh mineralogist William Hallowes “Big Willie” Miller devised a way to give each face of a crystal a unique label of three small integers. These integers are now known as “the Miller Indices,” which to this day are used to identify and classify crystals.

Combining Haüy’s discoveries and Miller’s work, a group of late-19th century scientists (German mineralogist Johann “Big Johann” Hessel, French crystallographer Auguste “Big Augie” Bravais, Russian mineralogist Evgraf “Big Ev” Fedorov, German mathematician Arthur “Big Art” Schoenflies, and English geologist William “Big Bill” Barlow) compiled a complete catalog of all possible crystal symmetries.

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Historical Science & Technology, Science & Society

Notable Local Alphabets of Archaic Greece

The Archaic Period of Ancient Greece lasted from the 8th century BCE until 480 BCE, during the Greco-Persian wars. The Greek alphabet was still not 100 percent codified at this point, as the 22 original symbols (letters) adapted from the Phoenician alphabet were slowly being replaced by the 24-letter Greek alphabet that exists today. As such, many areas of Greece developed their own variations of the alphabet, some of which were in use for centuries before the “official” Greek alphabet was put into use throughout the land. The most historically significant of these local alphabets are known as “Old Attic,” “Euboean,” and “Corinthian.” Read on to learn more!

The Old Attic Alphabet

Until the late 5th century BCE, the capital city of Athens used a variation of the so-called “light blue alphabet,” which included two unique letters and replaced multiple, similar letters with single letters (multiple E variations were reduced to a single E, for example). Additionally, Athens’ Old Attic alphabet used a number of letter forms that varied from the “traditional” shapes and were, at least partially, borrowed from alphabets of neighboring regions.

By the end of the 5th century BCE, it was commonplace for writing to be done in both standard and Old Attic alphabets, with words that used different letters in the different language written side-by-side. As part of the reforms that came about after the Thirty Tyrants, a formal decree was, um, decreed in 403 BCE, decreeing that all public writing must be done in using the newly-agreed upon full alphabet. Fittingly, given its name, the Old Attic alphabet was hastily packed in a cardboard box, stashed up in the rafters, and promptly forgotten about for like twelve years.

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in "Last Crusade."

Pretty sure this is from that shield Indy finds in “Last Crusade.”

The Euboean Alphabet

Not a typo of “European,” the Euboean alphabet was used Eretria, Chalkis, and related colonies throughout southern Italy. This variation brought the Greek alphabet to Italy, where it, in turn, begat Etruscan and other Old Italic alphabets, which ultimately led to the Latin alphabet we use today (more or less). A number of the features distinct to the Latin alphabet can be found in their nascent forms in the Euboean alphabet.

Like Old Attic, the Euboean alphabet dropped certain letters, combined some, and added others, while also using modified letter shapes. It even included letters that were not used in writing at all, but were still part of the alphabet for some reason; some of these letters made epic comebacks and found themselves in full use in later versions of the alphabet.

The well-known classicist (as “well known” as a classicist can be, anyway), and current Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barry “Big Barry” Powell has suggested that the Euboea region was likely where the Greek alphabet was first used in written form, in roughly 775 BCE, and that the written language may well have been developed solely for the purpose of writing down epic poetry. Someone get those beatniks a guitar and teach ‘em how to write an actual song like a normal person!

The Corinthian Alphabet

Used extensively across southern and eastern Peloponnese, the Corinthian alphabet also modified or reduced the usage of certain letters, while at the same time integrating letters from different alphabets that existed elsewhere. It maintained the use of two letters that were deemed obsolete in other alphabets, and combined its’ parent alphabet’s multiple Es into a single letter that was, for reasons unknown, shaped like a B; in place of the B, the Corinthian alphabet used a modified J.

The Corinthians were not real good with letters and such.

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Science & Society

In This Corner, Weighing 0.9 Ounces: Knockout Mouse!

While it’s certainly not ideal that scientists experiment on animals, it’s proven to be better than the alternative (i.e., experimenting on humans). The noble and adorable mouse is one of the most commonly-used laboratory animal, as they are relatively closely related to humans in terms of genetic similarity—humans and mice share a large number of genes. To test the effects of specific genes within the overall gene sequence, scientists frequently work with special genetically-modified mice called “knockout mice.”

knockout mouse

Gene Gene the Knockout Machine

In a knockout mouse, science has been used to inactivate or “knock out” an existing gene by replacing it or by disrupting it with a piece of artificial DNA. In modifying the creature’s gene structure, researchers can study the role of genes that have been sequenced, but whose functions are as yet undetermined. Observed differences in the knockout mouse’s behavior or physiology can be used to infer the probably function of the inactivated gene.

The first knockout mouse was created in 1989 by the power trio of Italian-American molecular geneticist Mario “Big Mario” Capecchi, English biologist Sir Martin “Big Marty” Evans, and British-American geneticist Oliver “Big Oli” Smithies. The technical details of how a knockout mouse is created are a bit much to get into here; suffice it to say that, for their efforts, Capecchi, Evans, and Smithies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 2007. Why it took 18 years for their achievement to be recognized is an Agatha Christie-caliber mystery.

Mighty Mouse

Since their “invention,” knockout mice have been used to model and study numerous diseases and maladies, including anxiety, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and Parkinson’s disease. They are also used to provide a biological and scientific context for the development and testing of drugs and other therapy techniques.

Millions of knockout mice are used in scientific and medical experiments every year, and thousands of different strains of knockout mice have been developed. Many different variations of the technology used to create them, as well as the modified mice themselves, have been patented by private companies.

Though gene knockout is most easily achieved in mice, other research animals can be “knocked out,” as well. Knockout rats have been used in research since 2003, but knockout rats are much more difficult to create than knockout mice.

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Science & Society

A Brief History of Pneumatic Conveying

Pneumatic conveying is one of the most efficient methods of transporting products or materials from Point A to Point B. All it takes is a sealed tube or a series of sealed tubes and either compressed air or a vacuum inducer to create air flow from one end to the other. Then, just introduce the…whatever you’re moving and WHOOSH! Off it goes. (If you’re having trouble visualizing a pneumatic conveyor system, just think of the tubes that bring the canisters back and forth between customers and tellers in the drive-through lanes at your bank.)

Pneumatic technology in general has been around for quite some time. But just when, exactly, was it first put to use as a material conveyor? And from whence did this idea originate?

Blowin’ In the Wind

The true origin of pneumatic conveying is hard to pin down. The first recorded use of pneumatics for material conveying purposes comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Germany, circa 1950. A crafty German by the name of Gasterstadt made the first forays into pneumatic conveying, developing the first pressure drop flow meter and experimenting with 100 meter-long horizontal pipes. Professors Rumpf and Barth of Karlsruhe University (now the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) carried Gasterstadt’s torch onward into the 1960s.

Further advances were made in 1960s-era Japan, when a professor at Nagoya University tasked a team of students with finding a solution for solid material conveying that would work throughout a multi-level facility. Several of the students involved went on to make significant advances in the science of pneumatic conveying; one even became a professor in the subject at Osaka University and, later, a technical advisor for the Hosokawa Research Foundation.

In the United States, major companies in the energy generation industry and adjacent industries put a good deal of time and money into advancing pneumatic conveyor technology. R&D teams from Exxon, Union Carbide, and especially Dow Chemical developed innovative ideas that would make pneumatic conveying more efficient and more effective. Soon, two different schools of emerged that ultimately led to the two different types of pneumatic conveying used today.

This  pneumatic system is used to convey coffee beans.

This pneumatic system is used to convey coffee beans.

Dilute Phase vs. Dense Phase Conveying

Dilute phase pneumatic conveying technology is based on Gasterstadt’s original designs. This method uses low pressure moving air (or another gas) at high velocity to carry products or materials throughout the system. Although faster and effective for a wider range of materials, dilute phase conveying is also less energy efficient and can cause more damage to the conveyed product.

Dense phase conveying was developed by researchers at Cambridge University in Great Britain. This method is more or less the opposite of dilute phase conveying, as it uses high pressure gas to move materials at low velocity. It is a more energy efficient process, but is applicable to a far smaller range of materials.

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Science, Science & Society

Women in Science in Europe’s Age of Enlightenment

The “Age of Enlightenment” began in late-17th Century Europe. It was a far-reaching cultural movement and a revolution in human thought that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. The intellectuals behind the Enlightenment hoped to reform the then-current society via reason, challenge widely-held ideas based in faith and tradition, and advance knowledge via scientific method.

“Enlightened” Yet Exclusionary

Despite the supposedly forward-thinking spirit of the era, women were still excluded from science at every turn. Scientific universities, professions, and societies uniformly refrained from accepting women into their ranks. Women’s only options for scientific learning were self-study, paid tutors, or, occasionally, instruction from their fathers. The few learned women of the time were primarily found among the elite of society.

Restrictions against female involvement in science were equal parts severe and ridiculous. Women were denied access to even the simplest scientific instruments; midwives were forbidden to use forceps. Scientifically-inclined women, as well as any women interested in higher education, were often ridiculed for neglecting their “domestic roles.”

Got a real sausage-fest going there, fellas.

Got a real sausage-fest going there, fellas.

Exceptional Women

Though this exclusionary attitude toward women in science was nearly universal, some women did manage to make significant scientific contributions during the 18th century.

Laura Bassi received a PhD in physics from Italy’s University of Bologna, and became a professor at the school in 1732.

For her contributions to agronomy, and specifically her discovery of methods for making flour and alcohol from potatoes, Eva Ekeblad was the first woman inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1748.

Through a personal relationship with Empress Catherine the Great, Russian Princess Yekaterina Dashvoka was named director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg in 1783. This marked the first time in history that a woman served as the head of a scientific institution.

After serving as an assistant to her brother, William, Germany’s Caroline Herschel became a noted astronomer in her own right. She is best known for her discovery of eight individual comets, the first of which she identified on 1 August 1786, as well as for creating the Index to Flamsteed’s Observations of the Fixed Stars in 1798.

In addition to collaborating with her husband, Antoine, in his laboratory research, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze of France translated numerous texts on chemistry from English to French. She also illustrated a number of her husband’s books, including his famous Treatise on Chemistry from 1789.

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