Science Sunday 08-13-2017

A Brief History of Flight, Part 1

The Wright Brothers

I am in the process of developing a new physics course for students interesting in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones.  It occurred to me to put together a brief history of human flight.

Most of us are familiar with the immense and courageous achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and who shared an inextinguishable passion for manned flight.

While there were many pioneers in manned flight, no one now doubts that the Wright brothers achieved the first heavier-than-air, fixed wing, controlled and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

At first ignored by the press and the US government, the brothers would go on to become world celebrities, showing off their latest aircraft design in Europe and the US in 1908.

Wilbur died at the relatively young age of 45 years, of typhoid fever.  Orville was more fortunate, living to the ripe old age of 76, when he succumbed to his second heart attack.

The video above is a short but reverential bio of the Wright brothers and their indispensable sister and business partner Katharine.   A more direct and compact biography of the Wright brothers early achievements can be viewed here:


The Montgolfier Brothers

Lesser well known are the Montgolfier brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, who invented the hot air balloon in the early 1780s.  The first human flight was in one of their balloons.  It flew over Paris for over 5 miles at a height of 3000 feet on November 21, 1783, to the incredulous surprise of many dignitaries, including John Adams, his wife Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson.  HBO recreated this event at considerable expense in its award winning series John Adams.  The above video shows that part of the series, including some brilliant dialogue between the principals.




Of course, the desire of humankind to fly did not start with the Montgolfier or Wright brothers, as witnessed by the Greek legend of Icarus, son of Daedalus.

As the story goes, Daedalus was an Athenian craftsman who designed and built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, a maze meant to imprison the half-man half-bull monster, the Minotaur.

Imprisoned in the labyrinth by Minos himself, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son to escape with.  He warned his son not to fly too close to the Sun, but Icarus could not control his impetuous self, and flying too high, his wings melted over the sea on their way back to Greece, with Icarus plunging to his death.


The Red Baron


After the Wright brothers showed the world that manned flight was possible, many improvements in aircraft design rapidly ensued, including using aircraft in war.

Blimps or dirigibles were used exclusively at first, for reconnaissance only, but it soon became apparent that fixed wing aircraft could do a better job of both reconnaissance and warfare.

The Germans were the first to realize that a machine gun could be synchronized to fire between an airplane’s propellers, and they quickly took advantage of this design improvement.

The most notable of German World War I flying aces was the inestimable Baron von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron (his plane was painted red).  He is credited with 80 confirmed aerial combat kills, but was himself shot down before the end of the war.


Bessie Coleman

Anyone who lives in the Chicagoland area and has visited O’Hare Airport has driven by or on Bessie Coleman Drive, named after Bessie Coleman, the first African-American and Native-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Born the 10th of 13 children to George Coleman, a Texas sharecropper, and his wife Susan, Bessie distinguished herself in school, but soon grew restless, wanting to make something of her life.  She moved to Chicago, saving her money as she worked both as a manicurist and in a chili restaurant.  Wanting badly to be a licensed pilot, but denied that opportunity in her home country, she set sail for France, where she soon learned how to fly.

She returned to the states with her pilot’s license to much notoriety, but soon realized that she would need additional flight training to make a living as a barnstormer, or aerial acrobatic pilot, so she returned to Europe for additional advanced training.

She returned to the US and to a successful career as a barnstormer, but died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1926.



Science Sunday 06-03-17

Popular Science Cassini Retrospective


Popular Science has put together an amazing retrospective collection of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.  It’s just one web page, so it will probably blow out your browser’s temporary memory, but check it out anyway.  There are quite a few worthy wallpaper images you can use.  Click on the link above to see this collection.

The white dot next to the arrow is Earth.

Icarus Redux

NASA just announced that it will be sending a probe to the Sun to study the Sun’s corona and its solar wind, among other things.

The probe is named after University of Chicago professor Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized the existence of a supersonic solar wind emanating from our star.

The probe will launch in July of 2018 and will fly to within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun.  That’s about 96% of the way from the Earth to the Sun, so the probe will have to withstand very high temperatures and immense solar radiation.

Minority Report

The BBC reports that Dr. Doris Tsao has shown that a mere 200 neurons in a monkey’s brain completely specify the image seen and remembered by the monkey.

Dr. Tsao was able to take the excitation pattern of the 200 neurons and recreate with remarkable accuracy the image that the monkey actually saw.

In principle, this means that at least for visual memories, it might soon be possible to “read” a person’s mind and accurately recreate the visual image the person is seeing in her mind.  Police could use this technique to produce significantly more faithful “sketches” of an eyewitness’ visual account of a reported criminal.

A New Ripple From Outer Space

Scientists at Caltech have just announced that a third gravitational wave (or space-time ripple) has been detected.  The wave detected is due to two black holes merging after circling each other.  The combined mass of the two black holes was estimated to be 49 solar masses (49 times the current mass of the Sun).

The two LIGO observatories have localized this latest collision to a spot 3 billion light years away, meaning the event detected in January, 2017, actually occurred 3 billion years ago.  Talk about ancient history!

The previous two instances of gravitational wave detection were also black hole mergers, the first having a combined mass of 62 solar masses, and the second having a combined mass of 21 solar masses.

For a primer on gravitational waves and why they are so important, check out this video:

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

As is often the case, I stumbled upon a series of Numberphile2 videos about a fellow named Godel who basically showed that there are some truths (statements known incontrovertibly to be true) that cannot be proven within the axiomatic boundaries of mathematics.

The above video (which is the third of three videos) deals with the suggestion that maybe theology can invoke Godel’s theorems to “save itself” from the ongoing assault of science on various religious assertions.