Saturday, December 24, 2011

Things Learned from Vonnegut's Timequake

Kurt Vonnegut's book Timequake is characteristically good -- part story telling, part commentary -- and I learned a few interesting things too, including:

1) Our word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead. As in, what the Romans made their pipes from. (Whether these pipes killed them is another matter.) That's why the chemical symbol for lead is "Pb."

2) Kurt Vonnegut's maternal great-uncle was Carl Barus, a founder and president (in 1905) of the American Physical Society. Barus investigated the effect of ionizing radiation on condensation on a cloud chamber, by fogging up the inside of a wooden box, and concluded it was unimportant. About the same time the Scottish physicist Charles Thomson Rees Wilson did similar work, only his cloud chamber was made of glass. Wilson showed that X-rays and radioactivity did create condensation, and, Vonnegut writes
"He criticized Uncle Carl for ignoring contamination from the wood walls of his chamber, for his crude method of making clouds, and for not shielding his fog from the electrical field of his Xray apparatus.

Wilson went on to make paths of electrically charged particles visible to the naked eye by
means of his cloud chamber. In 1927, he shared a Nobel Prize for Physics for doing this.

Uncle Carl must have felt like something the cat drug in!
I guess there could be worse things for a scientist. KV writes in the book:
Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different!
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

No comments: