I'm on a brief vacation - a "staycation" where I get to do what I love best - stay home with my wife and kids - talk, read, go bike riding with my sons, throw pitches and have my little guy work on his batting swing.
Yesterday I got to make breakfast for the boys - and we chatted - and the little guy, who is less and less little, somehow got on the subject of Issac Newton. Newton, I told him wasn't a modest man, but even Newton, with all his ego, acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and though he used the plural, as is well known, the greatest giant of them all was Archimedes.
These days science involves heavy duty - and often expensive - instrumentation, software programs with arcanely programmed guts - LIMS systems, speed, speed, speed, dense arrays of information, and all too narrow focus.
But all this was brought here on the shoulders of giants well after Newton, giants who labored maybe in more obscurity.
Some of what I was looking at today was science from the 50's and the 70's, the men and women of the time who first moved beyond this planet's atmosphere and gravity. And I was struck by the beauty of their jury-rigged lives, where they built stuff from scratch. Look at the description here:
The furnace for this apparatus consisted of a steel tube with six windings connected in series...Shunts were connected in parallel with each winding and were set so that the verticle temperature gradient in the salt was not more than 0.5C per inch. Power was drawn from a 2 kVA saturable core transformer and regulated by a proportionating temperature controller...This paper dates from 1957. Basically, if you read between the lines, you see that more or less, they built their apparatus.
A quartz cell fitted closely into the furnace tube. A platinum crucible containing the crucible was supported on the flared ground end of a quartz tube. The lower quartz rod was supported by O rings so that one polished face made contact with the planar base of the crucible and the other protruded from the furnace. The sound source, a barium titanate transducer, was mounted on this latter face.
And then there's this, from another paper I was reading:
Rhenium foil was added to molten LiCl04 at a temperature between 250°-300°C. The resulting reaction went smoothly with a slow evolution of bubbles. However, with the addition of powdered rhenium metal to the melt, the reaction was much more energetic, producing small flashes of light. We decided to use the foil for our experiments. The resulting melt was colorless; when more concentrated, the solution was pale yellow."We decided to use foil in our experiments..."
I love that line.
The same authors write:
However, because of the radioactivity and the volatile heptoxide, greater care had to be used. The attempted reaction was carried out in a hood with due precautions taken...and some activity is carried out of the reaction tube. This loss of activity was either caused by the volatile oxide or perhaps mechanical carry over by the evolution of oxygen.Sigh...
The work was carried out by German and American scientists in 1970.
Then there's this paper from 27 years ago, written in the last days of Jimmy Carter's presidency:
The Knudsen effusion cell used...was manufactured by hot pressing tantalum carbide powder into the desired shape and size. The effusion cell was bright gold in color indicating that the composition of the tantalum carbide was close to stoichiometric TaC. The orifice in the effusion cell lid had a measured area of 1.22 X low2 cm2 and a Clausing factor of 0.803. The effusion cell temperature was measured by sighting a calibrated (196SIPTS) [ll] Pyro micro-optical pyrometer onto a black-body hole in the bottom of the cell.These days one simply buys an instrument and in fact, one doesn't even really need to know how it works.
You know, people used to homogenize NMR fields by dangling a bolt inside the magnet.
I don't know why, but these things struck me as romantic.
I guess it doesn't mean much, but there were giants, not so long ago, men and women who know how to do everything from scratch.
We have lost something.