Category Archives: science

Hidden Figures

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Got to see “Hidden Figures” over the weekend. This weekend, of all weekends – both the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., and the last weekend that a rational thinker will be in the executive office, at least for a while.

The movie, by the way, is better than flawless. It shows, it doesn’t tell, a very important story, without preaching or swelling up the “triumph of the human will” music. Because as much as this movie is about triumph, and as much as it is very much a feel-good movie, there is also something profoundly sad behind it – and that is that it has a story to tell at all. And it has several.

First, the story, focusing on three black female pioneers at NASA, very matter-of-factly reminds us how straight-up awful it was to be African-American, how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow laws were (separate library books – where there weren’t separate libraries). This was during my lifetime, but early in it, and it’s easy for those details to slip from memory. Being Northern, we tend to shake it off more and forget there were plenty of iniquities up here as well (redlining, anyone?).

And if we like to think that’s all a comfortable distance in the mirror (and it’s not), add to that the challenges the subjects faced as women, and women in science. Both my daughters deal with the fact that they are still very much in the minority in their programs. Engineering programs are up to 18-20 percent female now, and the old prejudices continue. Both have gone to schools led by women, which has barely had an effect, and both have seen continuing institutional and cultural bias that affects how they are perceived, how they are able to participate, and what it is considered acceptable for them to do.

So while the movie featured some fabulous portrayals by seriously talented actresses (and the supporting cast, with an exercise in understatement by Kevin Costner), I couldn’t help but think how sad and stupid and wrong all this was and is. Why would we deny the best and brightest because of their skin color or gender? Why is that even “our” option? So much wasted human potential, lost to us forever, because blacks couldn’t attend courses in a white school, because women shouldn’t be doing math (their tender reproductive systems might suffer). We have chosen to hobble ourselves, in order to . . . what?

Growing up in the ’60s, when the idea was that we would overcome all these unfounded prejudices and hatreds, it just seemed like it was a matter of time. Rights were gained, laws were passed, and it seemed like by now we would be past most of this. It certainly did not seem like we would be riding a resurgent wave of crazed, open racism. I’d like to say the same for misogyny but there wasn’t even the same pretense with regard to women’s rights by those who oppose them. Whether it’s unjust rates of incarceration or forced unnecessary ultrasounds, I can’t imagine thinking this would still be happening.

So, yes, “Hidden Figures” is a note-perfect motion picture, and one of the rare important movies that doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. Its portrayals are supremely human and real (as were the performances in director Theodore Melfi’s previous feature, “St. Vincent”), and it’s supremely entertaining. As sad as the conditions at the time were for the people affected by them, I couldn’t help but feel a strong stirring of nostalgia for one aspect of the culture the movie portrayed, the culture I grew up in – a culture that valued, praised, and celebrated science. A culture that took pride in advancements . . . in moving forward, not backward.

Swooning over science

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, theoretician of alt...

Image via Wikipedia

My old hometown is chasing its tail like a puppy because it has been blessed by a Hollywood visitation. A soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture is being shot in Scotia and Schenectady, and people are understandably excited. (I tend to be more miffed than excited by these things, as the regular residents and commuters of a city are massively inconvenienced for weeks at a time so that Angelina Jolie’s stunt double can hang from one of our collapsing bridges, but I’m well on my way to codgerdom.) However, knowing that the movie will run for about two weeks, and a couple of years after that there’s a good chance no one will even remember who these actors are, I think it’s worth pointing out that for decades, Schenectady attracted real stars, the true geniuses who made our world what it is today, people who are actually deserving of recognition.

We could start with Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the genius who made alternating current what it is today. The one who developed General Electric’s research and development center. The one who suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and more ailments, escaped from German persecution for his socialist ideals, and became president of the Schenectady school board and city council. It was because of Steinmetz that dozens of other giants of physics and electricity came to visit him right in Schenectady. And they’re all recorded in the sign-in book from the research lab — originally located in Steinmetz’s barn.

Thomas Edison was one, of course. He didn’t visit Schenectady frequently and had opposed research outside of his Menlo Park labs (and his control), but by then the fate of General Electric was well out of the Wizard’s hands. So was Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner, creator of the most widely used model of the atom, and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron and isotopes, and inventor of the mass spectrometer. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph. Kunihiko Iwadare, founder of Nippon Electric Co., now known as NEC. Ivan Pavlov, best known for his dogs. Clifford C. Paterson, GE’s research director in the UK.  Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who also came from Steinmetz’s hometown of Breslau.

Now those are some names to swoon over.

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Time will come today

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Time to insure

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

After reading Daniel Walker Howe’s brilliant history of the transformation of the U.S. in the early 1800s, What Hath God Wrought, and then researching a brief story on the establishment of Albany Time, I realized that our approach to time has become standardized, perfect, and wrong. Reading Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time only reinforces my wonder that we have transformed time from the local true time to something that is delivered from a distant location and that is nearly always wrong.

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Ironically, our highly synchronized clocks, now tied in to official timeservers by high-speed internet connections, are almost never right.

It’s commonly thought that in olden days, time was set by solar noon, the point at which the sun is highest in the sky. Not really true, because it was understood early on that the earth actually rotates 361 degrees each day in relation to the sun, making the solar day a very inaccurate time reference (not to mention the difficulty of measuring the position of a disk that takes up such a large space in the sky and blinds you as you stare at it — leading to the stereotype of the squinty-eyed sailor). Instead, astronomers adopted sidereal time, measuring the earth’s rotation against the night sky, setting a day according to a normal 360-degree rotation. As the use of accurate clocks and watches spread widely in the 19th century, it was common for local jewelers and clockmakers to keep the correct time: local sidereal time. These merchants often were, or were assisted by, amateur astronomers, armed with star charts from Europe and the established reference of the Greenwich observatory, who would frequently set local time with a fair degree of accuracy. So here in Albany, the local watchmaker on Pearl Street was where you went to find out what time it was. And if you took the train to Syracuse, you might step off the train and go across the street to another jeweler to check the time, because it is about 9 minutes earlier in Syracuse than in Albany. That’s how time really works: it’s tied to your longitude, and even a small distance on the planet can make a significant difference in what time it is.

Came the telegraph, railroads and professional astronomers, and the case was made that for the sake of safety, to prevent rail collisions in the days before electric track signaling, trains should all run on the same time. In 1883, the railroads adopted the Standard Time system, breaking the U.S. into four time zones. (Standard time wasn’t established by federal law until 1918.) Most major cities, highly dependent on the railroads for the flow of commerce, adjusted their official time to railroad standard time. Suddenly, when it was noon in Boston, it was noon in Detroit – a convenience, but a patent falsehood, as these two cities are 47 minutes apart. But standard time was universally adopted, and became more and more important to commerce as communications sped up and the world got smaller.

In the early days of personal computers and the web, one of the exciting things was that you could suddenly get highly accurate time through your computer — much easier than placing the call to the local time and temperature line and then walking around the house to set your clocks, guessing how long it had been since you got the time as you moved from room to room. It used to require a program; now it’s built right in to the computer, the phone, the cable box, the Playstation. There’s perfect standard time all over my house – and it even adjusts to the lie we tell ourselves, daylight savings time, to enjoy longer summer evenings. We’ve transformed from having highly accurate time in the 19th century to being completely wrong in the 21st.

So we still commonly think that noon is the point when the sun is highest in the sky (which it is, if you’re talking about solar noon) — but solar noon here in Albany, during daylight savings time, is at 1:04:10 PM. Solar noon in Detroit is at 1:41:31 PM. But if I’m on a phone call with someone in Detroit, at noon today, we’ll both get on the phone at the same time and the sun won’t be near its highest point in the sky. Our time is highly accurate and completely wrong.


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