Monday, February 08, 2016

Names and faces

A topological line serving as a hotness manifold.
It's the time of the semester where I'm working at putting names and faces together with my students. I'm also working on an essay about thermometers, inspired by a visit to the Museo Galileo in Florence last fall, and thereby putting names to faces ranging from Gabriel Fahrenheit to Pennsylvania born zoologist Mable Frings.

The research for the essay has surfaced many interesting characters.  Historian Hasok Chang, who wrote this wonderfully wrought history of the thermometer — and who went to the same high school my friend Robin did.  Mathematician Jim Serrin —  may I call him Jim, I wonder? — who crafted my favorite definition of a thermometer ever: "There exists a topological line M which serves as a coordinate manifold of material behaviour. The points L of the manifold M are called 'hotness levels', and M is called the 'universal hotness manifold'."

Last week I tracked down what I thought was the earliest reference to the use of cricket chirping rates as rough thermometers (there is a famous chemistry problem about this phenomenon), to a Prof. Dolbear in 1898.  Then I picked up a paper on chirping rates (grasshoppers this time) by a husband and wife team, Hubert and Mable Frings, which opened with an incredible review of the chirping literature, tracing it back to....Margarette Brooks in 1881.  Mable, I'm hugely impressed with your ability to track this down in the days before citation indices or electronic databases with full-text search capabilities.  (At least I assume it was Mable...)

I read a short section of Mable's biography.  She suffered a compound fracture of her leg in a car accident in the 1930s, and went on to do field biology.  It makes complete sense that she'd have the patience to track down obscure data.  Their work contributed to a number of key discoveries in animal behavior and indirectly, to a deeper understanding of human epileptic seizures (though I would perhaps not consider them as obscure as Wired does here.)

None of this will make it into the essay, but there is something important to me about knowing the people behind what I'm reading, it adds a certain depth to the picture I'm developing of the science.  It like having a conversation with them over dinner, where we bounce between plunging the depths of science and forging social ties.

See a photo of Mable and Hubert Frings here.

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