Isaac Newton and the Plague of 1665/66: Perhaps the Greatest Year in Science!

Today, we have the Covid-19 virus pandemic which threatens America – indeed the entire globe. Many of us are just now emerging from weeks of “sheltering-in-place” while avoiding the virus and its risks. Virtually overnight, we found ourselves confined to home with copious spare time on our hands, time to do all those “other things” which prove to be so elusive in normal times. Many are the voices which have expressed this as a surprise blessing! Indeed, what have you been able to accomplish using this unexpected windfall of extra time at home?

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

The all-time poster-child for shelter-in-place achievers happens also to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, Isaac Newton (yes, even greater than Albert Einstein who holds second position – in my humble estimation!).

As a young, unknown student, Newton had just completed his undergraduate work at Cambridge University in the year 1665 when the fearsome bubonic plague, the “black death” as it was called, swept through London and regions of England. Armed only with the most rudimentary medical knowledge, Londoners and folks in the countryside resorted to the only option available to them: sheltering-in-place to avoid exposure. Sounds familiar, does it not?

 In 1665, despite centuries of recorded plagues and millions of deaths, the origin and transmission of such deadly pandemics were to remain unknown for a surprisingly long time. It was not until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium responsible for such a horrible affliction. In 1898, Jean-Paul Simond revealed that the bacterium was spread through flea bites. Rodents were identified as the principal hosts and transmission vehicle for these fleas. Although largely treatable and well-controlled, today, “the black death” surprisingly still stalks the earth and its human populations!

The year 1666 is known as Newton’s “annus mirabilis,” the “miracle year” in science due to thought processes and experiments that took place in a tiny manor house in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, near Cambridge. It was there, in his mother’s rustic farm-house, the place where he was born, that young Newton secluded himself from the plague for more than a year of intense contemplation, investigation, and writing.

At Woolsthorpe, Newton formulated three fundamental cornerstones of science and mathematics: first, the foundation of modern calculus, known then as Newton’s theory of fluxions; second, experiments with prisms and light which led to his second masterwork book in 1704, the Optics; and finally, his thoughts on the strange nature of gravitational attraction which led to his ultimate masterwork of 1687, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica which translates from Latin as: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The Principia is universally regarded as the greatest scientific book ever published, being the product of perhaps the most fertile mind in the recorded history of mankind. In the book, Newton combined his prodigious knowledge of Euclidean geometry with fledgling elements of his new calculus to describe mathematically, for the first time, no less than the motion of the planets through the heavens. Also revealed are Newton’s three laws of motion, the basis of modern physics/mechanics, and his notion of universal gravitational attraction.

Newton’s prodigious output during that year-plus of sheltering-in-place at Woolsthorpe is legendary because his investigative conclusions at that time led directly to his later, refined publications and their great advancement of scientific knowledge and method.

In stark contrast to Newton, this writer will be happy to further organize his den, write a few blog posts (such as this one), and clean-out the garage over the next several months. Oh…and I hope to give myself a much-needed haircut, soon! Like Newton, we can all strive, in our own way, to make the best of a terrible situation.

The Corona Virus Pandemic of 2019/2020

We are living through a life-changing experience. The ultimate outcome of the current Corona Virus pandemic can hardly be imagined at this time.

 To draw upon an aviation metaphor, this experience feels akin to piloting a small, vulnerable airplane while entering a thick and very extensive bank of high clouds and ground-hugging fog – visibility zero. Flying into such a complete white-out, one becomes dis-oriented at the controls. Familiar landmarks on the ground are no longer visible, and the proximity of threatening mountain peaks in the region becomes a frightening conjecture.

Climbing for altitude to 10,000 feet would provide margin against the higher mountains in the area, but our little craft and its human pilot are not engineered to operate efficiently at that altitude, so we drone-on into the vast unseen before us. We hope and we wonder how long it will take to emerge from this cloud into the light of day. Will we find ourselves flying comfortably toward a bright horizon, or will events portend something more calamitous for us and our little craft before we emerge back into visual flight rules and safely land?

A virus pandemic with fatal overtones such as Covid-19 constitutes a perfect storm capable of threatening our way of life not only in these United States, but simultaneously around the entire planet. What with the threat of climate-warming looming close behind, this planet’s human species seems to be arriving at a critical juncture along its time-line on this earth. What does the future hold?

We are, of course, still largely at the mercy of nature and whatever god operates behind the scene. This is true despite the enormous scientific and technical progress made over the last century or two, progress which has enabled a marvelous degree of understanding and a significant semblance of control over nature and our near-term fate.

Nature does have her “bag of tricks” which seems diabolically designed to regulate this planet, its animal life, and its human inhabitants using a number of “checks and balances.”

One aspect of the Covid-19 virus that is especially apparent is its disastrous effect on densely populated areas such as New York City. My wife and I will often mutter to ourselves when stuck in our own, local California traffic jams: “Too many people here, now.” The population density in Northern California is nothing like that in New York, Los Angeles, and other great metropolitan areas of the country, however. Could it be that mother nature is trying to tell us something by turning loose this highly contagious virus and zeroing-in on densely populated regions? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned.

Trader Joe’s with “senior line” (including my wife) forming at 7:45 am!

It is instructive to consider the responses of countries around the globe to this virus and its pandemic. Germany and South Korea are two regions which seem to have been well-prepared to harness a well-disciplined approach to managing the threat. Others like Italy and Spain have suffered disastrous casualties because they were not as prepared and disciplined in the beginning. It seems clear that the smaller, well-contained societies would predictably have an advantage over larger, more diverse populations. It also seems excruciatingly and embarrassing clear that the United States of America was not well prepared for what it now faces, nor is the country uniformly heeding the advice of our finest scientific minds.

The world populations are, all of us, living through history-in-the-making. When the story is finally written, this pandemic will occupy a prominent place in the overall history of this planet and its inhabitants. Clearly, we had better embrace scientific fact and research more closely than ever before in the biological fields of virology, epidemiology and immunology. On the heels of polio, AIDS, E-Bola, and H1N1, we now face the most challenging virus of them all, and who knows at this moment what the outcome will be?

Already, many heroes have surfaced in response to the threat. The first-responders and the medical staffs who are working to the limits of human endurance with personal risk and a spirit of sacrifice are heroes already…and will continue to be. Most state governors and their staffs are grappling tirelessly while carrying immense burdens of responsibility on their backs. By and large, we ordinary citizens understand the game plan and have sacrificed much while using the only tool we have at our immediate disposal with which to fight this virus: social isolation. It seems to clear to me that staying the course of social distancing and implementing mass testing/contact tracing are the requisite answers to stave-off disaster in the short term. But eradication of this threat will require something else: tools from our medical researchers which will rid us of the virus.

The names of the inevitable heroes of this ongoing saga will soon be entering the history books. These will be the lead-players within small teams of scientists and researchers who, daily, are burning the midnight oil in medical laboratories around the world in the race to stop Covid-19. Like Pasteur, Darwin, Mendel, Salk, Watson and Crick – like all those who poked and prodded nature to understand her secrets and thus harness medicine in order to ward-off nature’s challenges, a tiny group of current researchers will soon write their names large in history’s log.

I say it will be soon, because it can be soon and it must be soon. At stake for those who succeed in thwarting this ugly virus are scientific immortality as well as large financial and professional rewards. Satisfaction in knowing of their service to humanity will closely contend for top honor. Never has there been such a golden ring waiting to be plucked by riders on the medical carousel, and never has there been such pressure. Who will they be? The prize is huge, not to mention the importance to humanity of a vaccine or effective therapeutic. Never has there been a world-wide audience so tuned-in to events as is the case right now, because we are all at risk. Our very way of life is threatened, right now. Unlike certain influential people in this country, I believe wholeheartedly in the sciences which attempt to understand and explain the physical universe in which we live, and that gives reassurance at this uncertain time.

As a student of science and science history, I am very familiar with the exploits of legendary monster-minds who have miraculously shaped man’s understanding of his world – names like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. I am extremely confident that today’s researchers and scientists will – and very soon – announce some exciting and welcome news to the world community. We will then exit this enveloping cloud of despair and fly straight toward a bright horizon and a safe landing. We are all waiting, hoping, and we are ready.

One last observation:  Here is a commodity which has been elevated to “rare and collectible” status by the folly of our natures. While not quite in the same category (yet) as gold and diamonds, one must smile at the fact that demand has soared and availability has plunged from day one of this crisis. But this is really not so surprising because shit does happen, and this is our front line of defense. Be well!

Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind!

Fifty Years ago, yesterday, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off its launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on one of the most audacious adventures in the history of mankind. On board were three “spacemen” adventurers who carried the hopes and aspirations of people the world over on their shoulders.

The goal: to land a man on the moon’s surface and bring him safely back to mother earth. The odds of success? In 1961, when President Kennedy pronounced his determination for the nation to accomplish this before the end of the decade, many of the engineers with experience on the program which had not yet even sent Mercury astronaut John Glenn into local earth orbit thought Kennedy’s goal… “nuts.”

By the sheer force of national will fueled by an open checkbook for NASA from Washington, Kennedy’s daring commitment was realized. With over five months to spare before the decade’s end, astronauts Neal Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The confirmation came as Armstrong beamed back to earth, the message, “…the Eagle has landed.”

July 16, 1969 dawned bright and mostly clear over the Florida Cape. On that momentous day, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket with its crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, ponderously lifted from earth on a thundering plume of fire and smoke. The spectacle and the sound of it mesmerized the thousands who came to watch the launch for themselves. Even at the more distant viewing points from the launch pad, the rolling, rumbling thunder emanating from the engines of the Saturn 5 was sufficient to rattle windows and elicit speculations regarding the power and fury of whatever powers might ultimately bring about the end of the earth, itself.

Speaking less from a poetic standpoint and strictly from that of the rocket engineers who designed her, the mighty Saturn 5 at lift-off was developing 7.5 million pounds of upward thrust by expelling 15 tons per second of combustion materials from its five engine nozzles! These are incredible numbers.

 

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Wernher Von Braun and the business end of the Saturn 5 rocket

This was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion on full and mighty display:
    For every action, there results an equal and opposite reaction.

In full accordance with Newton’s third law, the forces within the combustion chambers, required to violently expel fifteen tons per second of combustion products from the rocket’s nozzles in a downward direction gave rise to equal and opposite reaction forces on the upper, closed walls of the combustion chambers. It is this reaction force which provides the requisite upward thrust to the Saturn 5. One can appreciate the rolling, earth-shaking thunder which was experienced far and wide during a Saturn 5 launch when the violence taking place within its combustion chambers is fully appreciated.

It is poetic justice that the fundamental principle behind rocket propulsion should stem from the fertile mind of Isaac Newton as first revealed in his Principia of 1687, the greatest scientific book ever published!

We celebrate, today, not only the complete success of Apollo 11 as a mission, but the spirit and can-do attitudes of NASA, President Kennedy, Congress, and the American people who were all-in with their support and enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 program. Those several days when space was truly opened for exploration will stand in the record of this nation as among the best of times for America, notwithstanding the array of “other” concerns which faced us then.

The cold war with the Soviets was one of those concerns, and anyone who has paid attention to America’s many triumphs in space will appreciate that a major impetus for Kennedy to issue his man-on-the-moon challenge in 1961 was the realization that space exploration meant rocket technology and rocket technology was key to our nuclear missile defenses and our national security. Despite the need for such gnawing pragmatism in the space program, the altruistic legacy of man’s exploration of outer space remains first and foremost in the consciousness of the American people.

Like Pearl Harbor, VE-day in World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and 9/11 in 2001, Apollo 11 was one of those generational events which remain a life-long memory for those who lived through them. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing fifty years ago. Linda and I were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was half-way through my Masters Degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We were renting half of a wonderful hillside duplex which overlooked that beautiful city with a line of sight toward the city harbor and west to the Pacific Ocean. As we intently watched all aspects of the Apollo launch on our little 19-inch black-and-white television during those several days, I recall countless time-outs to our front terrace-porch with coffee cup in-hand where I could enjoy the city view spread out below me while reflectively musing about the wonder of all that was happening on man’s remarkable journey to the moon and back. The few years we lived there encompassed some of the happiest times and circumstances of our young married lives; the triumphal success of Apollo 11 in July of 1969 played no small part in those special times for us and continues to provide joy in recollecting.

I have just finished watching the newly released DVD movie, Apollo 11, with my two young grandsons. The movie rates five-stars plus and does full justice to the drama and excitement of the event. As the movie ended, I counseled Matthew, my older grandson, that the times, the attitudes, and the circumstances which combined to make made Apollo 11 possible will represent a marker in humanity’s timeline, a marker which will always be remembered as “One giant leap for mankind.”

As a retired electrical engineer, I take time to reflect upon the countless scientific and technical people who made the moon landing possible:

-The physicists like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein who first unmasked the nature of gravity and the laws of motion.
-The electrical engineers/physicists who tamed electricity: men like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
-The metallurgists who, over many decades, came to understand the nature and strength of materials – titanium, for example, found in the rocket nozzles of Saturn.
-The “ordinary” electrical and mechanical engineers and computer programmers who designed the immense support platform of equipment needed to support a mission like Apollo 11.
-The countless, faceless, folks who are so large in number, but nevertheless provided critical skills and support in management and mission control.
-The technician who was called upon when a leaky valve on the rocket halted the countdown before launch. With, virtually, the eyes of the world upon him, he entered the rocket assembly some two-hundred feet above the pad to tighten some bolts in order to mitigate the situation. I can only imagine the pressures on this fellow who remains faceless and nameless. He has lived with quite a memory of that time and his role in it, I am certain.

And, finally, there were the dreamers, the ancient astronomers (natural philosophers) who looked to the heavens in wonderment centuries ago and asked, “How and why is this?”

 

 

Bye-Bye Birdie: My Recent Intervention with “Chickadees”

June 15, 2019: Yesterday was replete with both a happy ending and a sad one. The story began two days earlier when my wife and I arrived home after our regular workout at the local gym. We were not home long when Linda informed me that we had “birds in the garage.” Sure enough, there were at least two small, apparently very young birds flitting around among the exposed rafters: wonderful!

I immediately knew this could be a significant problem and could only wonder how multiple birds got into our seemingly (but not quite) airtight garage. As best we could recall, neither the large garage door nor the small side door had been left open for any period of time, recently!

After the two of us watched the tiny aviary flying to-and-fro within the garage, Linda opened the back door to briefly go into the house. At that point, one of the birds in flight headed right for the open doorway to the house which caused Linda to panic and to quickly close the door while retreating back into the garage.

Taking a cue from that, I figured we merely had to open the main garage door and the little denizens of our very own accidental aviary would head for daylight and freedom. Up came the door and we were greeted immediately with the sight of another small bird trying to get into the garage! We waved our arms and the new invader turned back. At the same time, neither of the two “captive inmates” showed any inclination to fly out to freedom.

What is going on here, I wondered? I soon deduced that the third bird was likely the mother bird, well-aware that two of her newly flight-qualified charges were somehow inside our garage. Further attempts to open the main garage door while patrolling outside to discourage mama from entering proved fruitless. The two tiny flyers inside, so recently flight-qualified, seemed not to recognize that they belonged outside, in the daylight and fresh air and not inside our garage. Daylight was not synonymous with freedom, to them, apparently.

Now, I knew we really had a problem. Another wrinkle to the situation: Linda is a bit terrified by the prospect of any close, personal encounter with birds, living or dead. More than once in our fifty-two years together, I have been despatched to her beloved garden to remove a dead bird from the flower beds. A dead bird discovery in her garden evokes an immediate freak-out from Linda.

What to do with these newbie birdies? I spent much of last Wed. evening and a good part of Thursday in the garage with my large, bright LED flashlight scanning the darker regions of the overhead rafters and the racks of storage boxes in the garage. Before long, the frenzied flying about was done; now, I had to audibly track the frequent and persistent squawky-peeps emanating from various corners of the garage in order to catch them in the beam of my flashlight. Wednesday evening, realizing the dire situation, I ordered a bird net from Amazon: two day delivery!

Once I located one of the birds in the beam of my flashlight, I would try to “coax” it to re-locate to a spot where I might capture it without harm. I armed myself with a large, wet rag to toss over a cornered or surprised bird. That led to several quite humorous, but decidedly unsuccessful encounters: they were too wily and quick for me! Before long, I concluded that my best option was to stun them a bit on their perch or in mid-air using my damp rag balled-up as a projectile. That did not work. My last resort was to gently swat them in mid-flight with the bristles of a broom, enough to stun them to the ground where I could employ my wet rag capture. Tracking flying birds in our garage which is crowded with boxes and stuff of all sorts means risking life and limb – a nearly impossible and dangerous mission.

I had the feeling that leaving the garage doors open for extended periods might only invite the mother (and other of the flock) inside. Besides, these confused baby birds seemed unable to recognize the freedom represented by daylight. They acted as if the garage were “home.”

More than once, after fruitlessly stalking these birdies for well over half an hour at a time, I would declare out loud, “I am done with these birds!” My LED flashlight batteries needed replacing, and I was discouraged, but I found myself unable to resist for long, going back to the garage to try some more, consumed by a stubborn persistence!

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I left the side garage door open and tried, yet again, to roust the uninvited residents of my garage and herd them with a broom toward daylight. I was 90% certain that one of them actually flew out the side door after considerable effort on my part. I thought I saw it out of the corner of my eye! Before he and/or others might decide to come back in, I closed the door, confident that I had but one uninvited guest remaining.

Now, it is Friday morning, and time is running out. The bird net I ordered from Amazon was not due until that evening, and I figured that a rescue was paramount before the end of the day. Without food and water, our uninvited guest surely could not last much longer, it seemed. That morning, I went out to the garage with my trusty flashlight, and my wet rag. Sure enough, there were still some weakly audible, squawky-peeps to be heard. When rousted, the little bird’s flight was slow and labored. At one point, the little flyer fluttered to the floor of the garage, exhausted, where I finally was able to cover him with my wet rag.

Scooping him up ever so carefully within the rag, I opened the side door to be greeted immediately by mama bird who quickly retreated when I stepped outside. She surely could hear her charge’s weak, squawky-peeps through the side door. Carefully, I laid the rag and its squirming little captive on the sidewalk and gently peeled back the flap covering him. The exhausted, cute little down-covered flyer was able to gain his feet, fluff himself up, and sit there motionless with eyes half-closed. I retreated several yards back, and, sure enough, mama bird was quickly there. Linda and I placed some water and crushed

cracker crumbs next to birdie, doing what little we could.

I spent close to a half-hour watching with fascination how mama bird energetically worked the various plants and bushes nearby, apparently looking for food. Twice, she went up to birdie and ostensibly transferred some sustenance to him beak-to-beak. She then departed for a while, only to come back, yet again, to check on her charge.
I came back later and found that birdie had moved off the sidewalk and onto the adjacent dirt strip – a wise move for the purposes of camouflage, if nothing else. Another half-hour passed, and I returned to find birdie still in place. I carefully attempted to place his water next to him and was startled when suddenly he took flight smoothly and straight to a bush some fifteen yards away – a very good and welcome sign! I have not seen him since, but, after what I have witnessed, I have no doubt that mama bird found him fairly quickly. Perhaps she has a few more lessons to impart before finally letting go!

The Final Chapter

Our Friday morning trip to the gym was long-delayed by the events described above, but we left happy in the knowledge that the little bird we rescued now had a chance at life. I heard no squawky-peeps in the garage prior to finally heading out for our workout. After the gym, we had not been home but a few minutes when Linda came to tell me she found a dead bird. My heart sank as I followed her to find out where she discovered the bird. Surprisingly, the bird was lying on the floor inside the garage, close to the side garage door. I immediately surmised that the second bird which I had thought flew out the open side door the day before, must not have done so. A wad of dust-balls from underneath some nearby cabinets was clinging to its feet. Sad was I, yet happy that the rescued birdie was still alive out there, somewhere, hopefully with a life ahead of him/her.

I learned a lot about these little birds during my three-day, up-close and personal interaction with them. Despite having small, “bird-brains,” they are hard-wired by mother nature with a strong instinct to survive. The mother/young bond on display throughout the three days was emblematic of that instinct. The endurance of the baby birds was evident by all the flying in a warm garage and the constant stream of squawky-peeps emitted from them, cries for help that the mother bird duly heeded.

I call these little birds “chickadees” for want of any more expertise. They are recent arrivals (within the last several years) in our neighborhood. Many are the times I have watched through the patio window as they deftly made their way among the plants outside, looking for dinner. My admiration for them has only grown deeper, given this recent experience.

Postscript: How Did They Get into the Garage?

Soon after discovering these little “garage invaders,” I employed my ladder to investigate. I was aware of a small masonry ledge just under the front eaves at the corner of the garage door where there was bird activity in years past. As I climbed to eye level with the ledge, an adult chickadee flew around the corner of the garage and landed on the ledge, not two feet from my nose. That startled me, and my unexpected presence there apparently startled the bird as well which left as quickly as it appeared. “That must be the mother bird,” I thought, and she seems familiar with the territory. A few moments later, I noticed the mother three feet away, peering at me around the corner of the garage while hanging tenaciously on to the side brick masonry which extends around the corner. One look from me, and she was gone, again.
My investigation revealed a construction area/strip about one inch high where the chicken wire underlay (for stucco) was exposed. But it was backed by a rafter – except for a two-inch length at the end. There, nothing showed behind the wire except a black hole! Despite the small diameter openings in the chicken-wire (approximately one inch), those birds somehow found their way through that area and into the garage. A rag is now stuffed into the narrow ledge opening outside. I expect no further Chickadee invasions!