Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

From the King of Planets to a Nobel Prize Winner

Does anyone out there besides me remember a wonderful television series called Connections?

It was hosted by James Burke, produced by the BBC and ran on PBS back in the late 70s and early 80s.  The mid-80s saw a similar program, The Day the Universe Changed, also on PBS and hosted by Burke.  In the mid- to late 90s cable TV got into the act with TLC (back when it could honestly claim the name The Learning Channel) running two follow-on series: Connections2 and Connections3.  I never liked those as much, but I adored the original series and Universe.  James Burke is, even today, one of the more brilliant science historians the planet has ever seen.  His approach to the history of science is simple and at once astonishing.  In short, he takes a "six degrees of separation" approach - everything is interconnected.  He rejects the linear approach - one discovery leading in simple direct line to a final conclusion - and shows you the massive web of interconnectedness that is all of human history - science, art, politics, music, anything and everything.  It was a mind-blowing experience to watch any episode of any of James Burke's shows, and I credit him with propelling me forward to not only study science, but to attempt as best I can to teach it to others and help them see its connection to their daily lives.

James Burke, wizard of science history.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
 I really must get some of those shows on DVD.

If ever the opportunity presents itself (Netflix, perhaps?) watch them.

But, actually, you can sort of engage in a poor man's version of Connections right now.  Wikipedia allows one to spend hours discovering ever more bizarre connections between things you never thought had a single thing to do with one another.  I call it a poor man's Connections because it lacks the vision and brilliance and wonderfully dry humor Mr. Burke brings to his programs.  But it is fun to get lost in Wikipedia nonetheless.

One of my favorite episodes of Connections, "Eat, Drink and be Merry..." explains how a plastic credit card leads us to landing a man on the Moon.  I'll not reproduce that for you here (go find the episode and watch it!) but I will share an interesting little journey I took through Wikipedia earlier today (the inspiration for this post).

I started on the Wikipedia entry for Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system.  I went there looking for a specific piece of information (which I now cannot for the life of me remember) but I quickly got absorbed in just reading.  And don't look shocked - NASA has enough tech geeks that police Wikipedia's space science entries - they are usually quite accurate.

Jupiter, king of the planets.  Read on to find out what this has to do with the Nobel Prize.  Image by Cassini.  Courtesy NASA and Wikipedia.

Anyway, I soon jumped from Jupiter the planet to Jupiter the Roman god.  I've always been fascinated by mythology (mostly Greek, but Roman works too) and so that was a natural leap for me.  From there I discovered that many of Jupiter's functions were focused on the Capitoline - and I clicked.

The Capitoline is one of the seven hills of Rome.  Its ancient ruins are largely buried under medieval and Renaissance palaces surrounding a piazza... *click*

A piazza is simply the Italian name for a city square.  Inigo Jones brought the style to London in the building of Covent Garden under the patronage of Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford... *click*  (okay, another predictable one for me...I confess to be a total anglophile and I love reading about British nobility)

The 4th Earl of Bedford not only championed the building of Covent Garden with its piazza and Church of St. Paul, he was also the man who pioneered the project to drain The Fens of Cambridgeshire... *click*

The Fens, or the Fenland, is an enormous area of marshland, now largely drained thanks to efforts of our friend Francis Russell.  They are so called because they are true fens -possessing an alkaline water chemistry...  *click*  (I clicked here because usually alkaline water is not so good for plant growth...curiosity got me...)

An alkali is a basic or ionic salt of an alkaline earth metal... *click*  (curiosity again...I'd never heard the term alkaline earth metal before...or if I had I dumped out of my brain with the rest of what I ever learned about chemistry!)

The alkaline earth metals are all elements in a particular column of the periodic table, usually called the group 2 elements (aha! That I know!).  These elements are beryllium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium and radium... *click*  (everybody likes radioactive stuff!)

Radium is a highly radioactive element discovered, in the form of radium chloride (a salt!  see above) in 1898 by Marie Curie...(hey wait!  I know her!)

Marie Curie, is of course, known to any girl who goes into the sciences.  She was a Polish physicist and chemist, the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, the only woman ever to win in two fields (physics and chemistry), and still the only person of either gender to win in multiple sciences (the other three multi-Nobel winners received theirs in only one science category).

Marie Curie, a giant in the fields of physics and chemistry by anyone's standards.  And forever connected to the planet Jupiter.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

So there you go.  If anyone ever asks you what the Nobel Prize has to do with the planet Jupiter, you can now tell them.

Okay, silly, but a fun way to spend an afternoon.
More in two weeks...
Until then, carpe noctem!

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