Tag: Saturday Night Science

Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Saturday Night Science: James Clerk Maxwell — The Man Who Changed Everything


In the 19th century, science in general — and physics in particular — grew up, assuming its modern form which is still recognisable today. At the start of the century, the word “scientist” was not yet in use, and the natural philosophers of the time were often amateurs. University research in the sciences, particularly in Britain, was rare. Those working in the sciences were often occupied by cataloguing natural phenomena, and apart from Newton’s monumental achievements, few people focussed on discovering mathematical laws to explain the new physical phenomena which were being discovered such as electricity and magnetism.

One person, James Clerk Maxwell, was largely responsible for creating the way modern science is done. He can also claim credit for the way we think about theories of physics, restoring Britain’s standing in physics compared to work on the Continent, and creating an institution that continues to do important work into the present day. While every physicist and electrical engineer knows of Maxwell and his work, he is largely unknown to the general public, and even those who are aware of his seminal work in electromagnetism may be unaware of the extent his footprints are found all over the edifice of 19th century physics.


Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Saturday Night Science: Final Totality


perimoonOne of the most remarkable celestial coincidences is that the Moon and Sun — as viewed from the Earth — have almost the same apparent size. Depending on its position in orbit, the Moon can appear either larger or smaller than the Sun, resulting in solar eclipses on Earth occurring in two varieties: total, when the Moon is close enough to appear larger than Sun and completely cover it, and annular, where a more distant Moon fails to completely cover the Sun’s photosphere, resulting in a “ring of fire”.

This size coincidence is striking, especially since it hasn’t always been the case, nor will it be the case forever. Billions of years ago, the Moon was much closer to the Earth and total eclipses were far more common, yet less spectacular because the Sun’s corona and prominences wouldn’t have been visible all around the Sun. Eventually, tidal-driven recession of the Moon from the Earth will put an end to total solar eclipses visible from Earth and all subsequent eclipses will be annular. Some have actually argued that the closely comparable apparent sizes of the Sun and Moon have contributed in some way to the evolution of human intelligence, providing an “anthropic” explanation of why we happen to be observing such a marvel at the epoch in geological time when it happens to occur.


Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Saturday Night Science: Rats


Here we have one of the rarest phenomena in publishing: a thoroughly delightful best-seller about a totally disgusting topic: rats. (Before legions of rat fanciers berate me for bad-mouthing their pets, let me state at the outset that this

book is about wild rats, not pet and laboratory rats which have been bred for docility for a century and a half. The new afterword to this paperback edition relates the story of a Brooklyn couple who caught a juvenile Bedford-Stuyvesant street rat to fill the empty cage of their recently deceased pet and, as it it matured, came to regard it with such fear that they were afraid even to release it in a park lest it turn and attack them when the cage was opened—the author suggested they might consider the strategy of “open the cage and run like hell” [p. 225–226]. One of the pioneers in the use of rats in medical research in the early years of the 20th century tried to use wild rats and concluded “they proved too savage to maintain in the laboratory” [p. 231].)