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    The Art of Metal Filaments

    I came to CHF to research whether metal scarcity affected the development of light bulbs. While visiting several local Philadelphia bars I stumbled on an unusual light bulb. It had an old-fashioned filament structure that wound in circles like thread on a loom. I had never seen these type of filaments outside of illustrations in books, but I found them at the White Dog Cafe, the Bar(n), and JJ Bootleggers. Where did they come from? To find the answer, I dove into my research.


    At the beginning of the 20th century several businesses experimented with different metals for light bulb filaments. A German company, Siemens and Halske, manufactured a tantalum lamp which entered the European market in 1905. Tantalum has a relatively low resistance and as a result the tantalum filament has to be long in order to be incandescent. To fit the long tantalum thread into a light bulb the German company came up with a structure called a “spider.” The lamp was not commercially successful, partly as a result of tantalum scarcity—the metal was mined in only a few places and was expensive.


    The “spider” design, however, was not abandoned. It was used for a tungsten filament light bulb manufactured from 1909 to 1945 by General Electric and Westinghouse under the trademark name Mazda. Most modern lightbulb filaments are invisible, hidden beneath frosted glass. The Mazda light bulb was designed to have visible filaments.

    The traditional light bulbs designs I had stumbled across in Philadelphia bars were based on the Mazda light bulb. I first noticed them in 2015, but today they are everywhere, including my home country of Sweden.

    By Hanna Vikström

    Images: From the book The Rare Earth Industry, by Sydney J. Johnstone and Alexander S. Russell.


    Google Doodle celebrating the birthday of mathematician and inventor Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854-1923).

    (via fredscience)


    It’s that time again! Museum Dance Off time that is! 

    For this year’s entry, the Chemical Heritage Foundation has come up with a fun video celebrating women in science. If you like it, please vote!

    Animating Science at Play

    Part 1

    Last September the Museum at CHF opened a new exhibit about the history of chemistry sets and other science toys called Science at Play. To make the chemistry sets come alive visually, CHF hired us, the animation students at the University of the Arts under Professor John Serpentelli, to make a series of five animated shorts. Our five animations focused on the 1850s, 1900s, 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s.

    Animation is tedious, time-consuming work, but we knew that it was vital for our animations to express the era and the attitudes and concerns represented by each chemistry set.

    The first step was to create concept art: possible character designs and rough storyboards. This involved a lot of discussion with CHF staff to determine their vision for these animated shorts. Because we were trying to represent so many different eras, some of us were drawing in an early 1900s rubber hose design (think limbs without hinges, like Felix the Cat) while others were drawing in a modern cartoon style.

    The early concept art was cluttered and all over the place because there was so much art to be made. There was also some confusion about how to transition from one era to the next. At first we thought each time period would connect to the next through a camera zoom into an experiment with one character saying, “That’s never going to work!” Then we considered using two time traveling children who would visit each time period and play with its chemistry set. We were losing too much time trying to figure out how to move between time periods, so we decided that the transition wasn’t as important as the representation of each era. In the end, we treated each era as its own separate short, with only a title card to indicate the transition between them. 

    We found that animating many short cartoons was actually more difficult than animating one long one. Each era called for its own concept art and storyboards. If we only used one animation style and one story, the process would have been much faster.

    Next week I’ll talk about how we split up the massive amount of work among our small class of students.

    By Meghan Luna

    Watch the finished animations.

    Albert Einstein (left) and French philosopher and writer Henri Bergson.


    Last week’s announcement of the direct detection of gravitational waves proved, once again, the enduring power of Albert Einstein’s scientific vision. Once again, Einstein was right in that this theory accurately predicted the behavior of the world.

    But with last week’s triumph, a deep and fascinating question arises: Could Einstein be right about his science and still be wrong about the broader context into which we humans put that science?

    Let me explain.

    There are a lot of reasons thinking about physics is worth the effort. From GPS to 3-D printers, it’s a subject yielding a lot of cool technology. And from flushing toilets to rising clouds, physics also explains a lot about the world around us.

    But there’s another reason people love physics — the world we can’t see. Physics offers radical new perspectives on what lies beneath, behind and below our everyday experience. In this way, physics seems like more than just knowledge; it seems like truth with a capital T.

    But when science reaches the hairy edges of our experience, when it reaches outward to the boundaries of our abilities to describe the world, is there something else coming along for the ride? Together with the powerful, abstract mathematics and the ingenious instrumentation, is there something beyond “just the facts” requiring special attention when physicists make their grandest claims about the cosmos?

    Was Einstein Wrong?

    Photo: Keystone/Getty Images and STF/AFP/Getty Images
    Graphic: Credit: Katherine Du, Adam Frank and Katie Park/NPR

    Brigitte Van Tiggelen at the KULeuven archives, Leuven, Belgium Intimate collaboration in a lab notebook with both handwritings. (Courtesy of the Universiteitsarchief Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven, Noddack-Tacke, 209)

    CHF’s Marketing Specialist Monica Fonorow recently spoke with Brigitte Van Tiggelen about her research, her work with CHF, and the importance of studying the history of science.

    You’re a familiar face to this organization: You were a Beckman Center fellow in 2006 and in 2009. What keeps bringing you back? What first brought me to CHF are the vast and important collections. CHF also provided an inspiring environment in which to work. As time went by, I discovered other facets of the organization, like its outreach and preservation of the past through active collecting of memories, papers, and objects related to the sciences and their development. And the spectrum of audiences, from historians to scientists to curious non-specialists, makes this place distinctive.

    For the past year and a half you’ve been serving as CHF’s director of European operations and outreach while continuing to volunteer your time and talents as the director of Mémosciences. How do you foresee CHF’s operations in Europe developing? Through my experience with Mémosciences, I have realized how easily non-historians—be it teachers or chemists curious about their past—can become engaged with this work once you give them a taste of good history of science. CHF already engages a plurality of audiences in a way that other foundations and institutions around the world do not. So we have a wonderful opportunity to grow internationally by serving both as a template and a catalyst in Europe.

    You research—among other things—romantic couples working in the sciences. What drew you to that subject in particular? Usually couples are assessed in individual terms. But while using papers gathered from one couple for my research into the discovery of elements 43 (technetium) and 75 (rhenium), I was struck by the existence of a working unit, with its own center of gravity and public face; a unit existing beyond the individuals that also didn’t dissolve the individual components. To some extent it’s like atoms in molecules.

    Why is the history of science important? At every moment in history both science and society are changing, along with the connection between them. To be a scientist is to live within a swirl of change; to be a human connected to society is equally challenging. A historical perspective is indispensable to make sense of it all. We historians take the records and evidence left by working scientists and their contemporaries—we describe what happened, how and why it happened, how it impacted the science and the society they lived in, and how it still impacts the world we live in today. Whatever occurs in the disciplines of chemistry or biology or physics in the future, historians will keep describing this exciting human adventure.

    When was the last time you had a conversation in which you didn’t whip out your smartphone and search Google to resolve a dispute with a friend?

    Fears of a future where an artificial superintelligence eradicates humanity may not come to pass, but in other ways humans are already dependent on computers. We look to chat bots and interfaces like Siri for comfort and direction. We rely on them emotionally and intellectually to the point where we are at least partially subservient to them. Even a chess grandmaster is susceptible to the uncanny feeling that a computer is smarter than it looks, feeding the illusion that humans will soon become obsolete.

    Whether we are looking up the definition of a word or asking for direction, artificial intelligence is an integral part of our daily lives. But according to this article in the New York Times, it likely won’t be the end of the world as we know it.

    Distillations will explore the past and future of artificial intelligence in the upcoming summer issue of our magazine, and further explain why we are not as close to the Singularity as you might expect.


    A demonstration shows how a metal aircraft sheds lightning, 1950; USAF, published by National Geographic

    via reddit

    Nikola Telsa explored wireless telegraphy and produced artificial lightning.

    Ben Gross writes:

    Tesla was an effective showman, and his spark-filled lectures proved one of the most popular attractions of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. His love of illusions, however, blinded him to practical concerns later in his career. This shortcoming was particularly evident in his quest for wireless power transmission.

    Read the story here: http://ow.ly/10m7dx


    No, these aren’t photographs. These are actually a hand-drawn illustrations by biologist and illustrator Joseph Tomelleri.

    Tomelleri draws fish for scientific research. His models are specimens that he receives from researchers or that he collects himself. Over the past 30 years, he’s drawn more than 1,200 scientifically accurate illustrations of about 900 species, carefully rendering the edges of their scales, the exact number of fin rays, and even the faint lateral line, or sensory organ, that runs down the sides of all fish. His lifelike artwork has been featured in thousands of publications, he estimates, helping ichthyologists better understand fishes and their changing ecosystems.

    You can learn more about them here!

    There’s something fishy about these fish.


    Here’s a mystery: what highly acclaimed television program has been turned into an educational website for teachers and students? If you guessed the PBS show The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, you would be right. Many former research fellows and friends of CHF are featured in these videos, including including Larry Principe, Roald Hoffmann, Sy Mauskopf, Alan Rocke, Richard Holmes, David Knight, and Eric Scerri.

    Image: Alchemist, a 17th century Dutch painting by Thomas Wijck.

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