Saturday, 9 May 2015

Sometimes, heavier drugs are safer (article for Mapping Ignorance)

Yep! Sometimes, medicines can have nasty as well as beneficial effects, but chemists often perform tricks in order to get rid of the bad ones. One way to do it is by raising their molecular weights. You'll find out how in the article I've written this week for Mapping Ignorance. Also, I talk about hands, gloves and mirrors!

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

From after-sex cigarettes to wifi: the story of Hedy Lamarr

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid".
Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was one of the most famous celebrities of her time, not only thanks to being an exotic brunette in a world of blonde movie stars but also because she became the first actress to simulate an orgasm on a mainstream, non-pornographic film at the tender age of 18, with her after-sex cigarette and everything! Although this wasn't the only thing in which she was a pioneer, as her life looks a lot like a movie itself.

Yes she was quite a lot of a pioneer, this was happening in 1933, before naked people were invented!

In 1933, right after her famous sex scene, she married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy fascist arm manufacturer who used to throw parties in his house in Austria, often attended by both Mussolini and Hitler who were unaware that Hedy came from a Jewish family. Mandl wasn't very happy that his wife was an actress, and besides spending a big deal of time and money in buying as many copies of Hedy's films as he could in an attempt to avoid their public viewings, he was jealous to the extent of not allowing her stay alone at home and making her accompany him to his military technology meetings with scientists and officials, in which he would often joke about how ignorant she was, about her inability to understand what they were talking about, and openly talking in front of her of top secret plans and designs. But she wasn't stupid at all; on the contrary, she was quite intelligent, she had studied a bit of engineering before joining the film industry, and she got interested in the matter and learned as much as she could from those meetings while she also designed a plan to escape her husband: one night she convinced him of how cool it would be to wear all the jewellery she owned for a dinner they were attending, and once at the dinner she vanished. A few days afterwards, she was on a ship on the way to America, using the identity of one of her assistants. And as everything in life needs coincidences in order to happen, guess who was in that ship too! Louis B. Mayer, the very famous film producer, a huge fan of Hedy and also the co-founder of the Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. Needless to say, by the end of the trip, Hedy had already signed a contract with MGM that led her to work with superstars like Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Spencer Tracy or James Stewart. And while all this was happening, she never ran out of scientific curiosity.

Definitely not the kind of lady you expect to fix your internet connection

Shortly after arriving to Hollywood she became very famous, but she was a bit frustrated as all her film roles were too predictable and she was quite bored by the lack of acting challenges, with her always playing your typical exotic tempting brunette. Certainly the experiments she carried out at her home lab were way more exciting than her life under the spotlights, as she had set a workshop in one of the rooms in her house where she would read engineering books, draw, and design devices that included stuff like an improved traffic light. So in 1940, with the German submarines attacking ships full of people trying to flee the nazis, Hedy started wondering if she could do something about it, given her interest and everything she had learned at those meetings with officers and scientists she used to attend in Austria. That way she began tinkering with the idea of a secret communication system that could guide torpedoes by means of a frequency that couldn't be intercepted.

Anyway, she kept those experiments and ideas for herself... until she met George Antheil at a party. This guy was a famous American avant-garde composer and pianist who also made music for TV and Hollywood films, and whose most famous composition is the Ballet Mechanique. It is a “ballet” in which machines were on stage instead of human dancers, moving and making noise. It was written for sixteen self-played pianos, three regular pianos, xylophones, sirens, and even airplane propellers. Hedy and George became good friends who shared common interests beyond Hollywood, and after their conversations about science and technology, Hedy started to wonder that, if self-played pianos were, in some way, “programmed” to play one note after another, why couldn't radio frequencies that were driving torpedoes do something similar. Given that, within the same musical instrument, the difference between two different notes is purely a difference of frequency, her idea made a lot of sense: at that time it was very easy to broadcast interference at the unique frequency of the control signal causing torpedoes to go off course, and using more frequencies would therefore make it more difficult to interfere. 

So they invented a system in which both the transmitter and the receiver simultaneously jumped from frequency to frequency, based on a self-played-piano-like strip devised by Antheil, that would “unpredictably” change the frequency of the signals between the control center and the torpedo, so that someone trying to intercept the signals couldn't be able to get anything, given that they wouldn't know in what frequency the signals would be or what spectrum they should look at. Interestingly, the range of frequencies was 88, exactly the same number of frequencies a piano has (they generally have 88 keys). This frequency-hopping idea would serve later as a basis for the modern spread-spectrum communication technology that made bluetooth, wifi and CDMA (used in cordless phones) possible. The system was patented in 1942, although Hedy Lamarr never got any money from it. 

With this patent in hand, she tried to join the National Inventors Council several times, but she was told that, if she wanted to help with the war, she'd rather participate in a war-bond selling campaign, making use of her celebrity status. Which she did, and for a few months she would make public appearances in which she'd call a “random” guy among the audience up on stage. After flirting with him for a bit, she'd say to the public that she would kiss him if they bought war bonds, and when enough were purchased, she'd give the guy a kiss after which he'd go back into the audience... until their next public appearance -needless to say, he was always the same guy and also part of the show.

Hedy Lamarr lived 86 years during which she had three children, got married five times, starred in more than thirty films, and put the basis for a technology without which you probably wouldn't be reading this right now.

More on this story

The famous very first cinema sex scene -it is probably the very first cinema post-sex cigarette scene too,  from the film "Ecstasy" (1933)

The Ballet Mechanique as it was originally conceived: to accompany an experimental film (1924) with cinematography by Man Ray. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The beginning of life, uncracked by cyanide? (article for Mapping Ignorance)

Yeah I know, I know I have been very lazy lately, and I haven't written a blog post for more than one month. But I promise you will have a new amazing science related story in the next few days! 

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my new post for Mapping Ignorance. Featuring Richard Dawkins, cyanide, lottery, and the origin of life!

New post: The beginning of life, uncracked by cyanide?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Graphene oxide: yet another "cancer cure of the week"? (article for Mapping Ignorance)

Today's post will be a bit unusual, as I am just posting the link for the article "Graphene oxide: yet another 'cancer cure of the week'?" which I am proud to have published today on the Mapping Ignorance  website.  I hope you like it! Or at least I hope you like the website... even the posts that are not mine.
Just follow the links below! 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

How bohemian life led to the first computer program

Lord Byron was not only a great poet and the responsible for Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” as well as John Polidori's “The Vampyre”, whose main character is said to be Lord Byron himself and would set the ground for modern vampire stories like “Dracula”. He was also one of the first fan phenomenons in history, causing long queues every time he had new poems published, and even faints and hysteria whenever he made public appearances. And he loved it. Likewise, he was one of the first celebrities to receive plenty of fan mail, on which he even received invitations to... well, "untoward" things that probably did not sound very well when written on paper in the 19th century.

The truth is, he never was in need of women, intense experiences or fun. But, surprisingly, or probably not, considering how things go in life, he liked Anne Isabella who was very religious and strict, and who loved mathematics. As expected, the very serious lady and the vicious guy who loved bohemian life stayed together for a short time only and they got separated after a one year marriage and right after having Augusta Ada (1815-1852) who would be Lord Byron's only official child. It was Lord Byron who started calling his daughter by her middle name rather than Augusta, which is the reason why she'd be known as Ada all her life. Although they never saw each other  again since Lord Byron and his wife got separated; in fact Ada never even saw his father's portrait until her twenties. Ironically, they ended up buried next to each other.

Along with her spiteful going around informing everyone and anyone of her ex husband's immoral behaviour (as though she was surprised!), and in order to avoid the possibility that Ada inherited her father's unhealthy and relaxed tastes and way of life, Ada Byron's mum imposed on her a strict scientific and technologic education which was very welcome by her daughter. Ada was fascinated by mathematics and how machines functioned, to the extent that she even used to design boats and flying machines as a kid. And then at 19 she got married to William King who was later made Earl of Lovelace, while she became Countess of Lovelace. That's why we know her as Ada Lovelace despite her first name not being Ada nor her surname Lovelace.

And to think we nowadays moan about our favourite jeans not being dry and having to wear the less favorite ones. From computer programming to partying with the guys, she did all that in this outfit. Amazing innit. 

In 1833, one of Ada Lovelace’s science teachers introduced her to Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (just in order that you guys have an idea of what that means, I'll tell you that Newton, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking have had that position, not that anyone can get it). This guy was quite famous for his work in theoretical plans for massive calculating machines. He had designed (though never built in full) two types of engine: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The Difference Engine was a machine that worked using addition, whereas the Analytical Engine could use addition, substraction, multiplication and division -a machine that somewhat was able to do “everything”, similarly to the computers we have nowadays. So he and Ada got so impressed with each other that they soon started working together, and they became close and lifelong friends.

The punched cards

Ada Lovelace designed a method through which Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine could calculate a sequence of  numbers, by means of a punched card input device. She gave the example of a sequence of Bernoulli's numbers, but only as a way to show that the same machine could calculate any sequence of numbers or function, were it to be given instructions. This was very important as with it she was setting the basis for designing machines that could manipulate symbols and instructions rather than just numbers. The method would have worked had the Analytical Engine been actually built (only the Difference Engine was, in London in 2002). Based on this, Ada Lovelace is nowadays considered the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world's first computer program.

Ada must have been a great woman to know, considering she lived in the Victorian era. First, because of her unusual education and interest in science for a woman by then, second because we shouldn't forget she did all that in a corset, and also because she would not really care about what others thought of her relaxed relationship with men who were not her husband, which not only included her work with Charles Babbage but also led to rumours of affairs involving Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Besides, she really loved gambling, to the point that she formed a group with male friends in a supposed attempt to create a mathematical model for successful bets. This ended up being a disaster, with her in debt of plenty of money but what the hell, she had way more fun than most women were allowed by then.

She died of cancer at 36 and she now lies next to her father.

More about Ada Lovelace

What are Bernoulli's numbers -though I'd rather stick to the idea that they are just a sequence of numbers, not that I really want to have my brain boiling for the next two days and I'd prefer to have a laugh or two at the love letters addressed to Lord Byron.