BLACKEST BLACK

I remember several years ago, a friend told me an anecdote. A child – perhaps his son – asks his mother: “Is there a blacker color than black?” To the negative response of the mother, the child persists: “If it existed, I would paint the bathroom in that color and then I would make the sink and tub black to brighten up the room…”
What was at the time a fun and surreal idea is now a reality. It’s called BlackestBlack and it is a substance invented in 2019 by physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology capable of absorbing 99.995% of light, and is the blackest material ever created by man, blacker than any black you have ever seen… literally a black hole.
Someone who had dealt with black (no, I’m not talking about black holes) is the amateur astronomer (he had a medical degree) Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758–1840), another of the usual early geniuses we encounter in the history of science, who at 19, while attending the University of Gottingen, identified a method, still used today, to determine the orbit of comets.
We are here interested in a paradox that bears his name, even if previously formulated by several other astronomers.
Olbers’ paradox, which he described in 1823, establishes that the brightness of the sky conflicts with the theory of a static and infinite universe.
In other words: imagining the universe as an infinite series of concentric spheres with an even number of stars in each sphere, the sky should be as bright as the sun. Looking up, our eye would encounter a star anywhere in the sky. The objection that more distant stars would be less bright is countered by the fact that more distant (and larger) spheres would have more stars. So why is the sky black?
Over time there were several attempts to explain the paradox. Astronomers, physicists, and even the writer Edgar Allan Poe, advanced hypotheses such as that there are vast dark clouds in space or that… the stars end and what we see is the empty space beyond.
The solution to the riddle came with the American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (1889 – 1953), but first we need to take a step back.
You have probably noticed a certain physical effect: if a train or a motorcycle passes in front of you, its noise is of higher tone as it approaches and of lower tone as it moves away. The classic iiiiiiiiiiuuuuuuuuuu.
This is called the Doppler effect, from the name of the Austrian physicist Christian Andreas Doppler (1803 – 1853) who enunciated it.
The effect is easy to explain. Imagine a gun approaching and shooting beans toward you (every bean being equivalent to a sound wave). As it approaches, after shooting each bean, it will move toward you before shooting the next one. So, the interval between one bean and the next is shorter than if the gun had been stationary, the beans therefore will arrive at a higher frequency. Substituting sound waves for beans, higher frequency, equals higher sound. Moving away the opposite happens. With each bean, the gun moves away: beans arrive at a lower frequency.
Second concept: light is – for the purposes of our discussion – an emission of waves whose frequencies determin the color spectrum. Starting from the lowest frequency: infra-red (not visible to the human eye), red, yellow, green, blue, purple, ultra-violet (not visible).
Hubble observed that the light of the more distant stars appeared to be redshifted, that is their spectrum was shifted toward a lower frequency, so he obviously inferred that they are receding. Hence: the universe is expanding.
And this provides the most likely explanation for Olbers’ paradox: the most distant stars are also the oldest and have been traveling – in an expanding universe – for billions of years. Their light has thus shifted in the spectrum below the visible threshold, in the microwave region.
His observations on the correlation between the redshift and the distance of the observed galaxies, led to the formulation of Hubble’s law (that galaxies are moving away from the Earth at speeds proportional to their distance: the farther they are, the faster they are moving away from Earth), the subsequent theories on the explosive birth of the universe (Big Bang) and the stomach ache of a well-known physicist.
Albert Einstein in fact, in 1917, formulating the equations underlying his Theory of General Relativity, obtained results that were not compatible with the static universe which was the premise of his studies. Failing to make sense of it all, he had introduced a constant, a number that represents a component of energy that somehow had to be present in nature. Something like: “I get 2 + 2 equals 5, so there must be a 1 somewhere”. When he learned of Hubble’s discovery, he found that in an expanding universe the accounts were balanced without the need for the constant and said that that was the biggest mistake of his life.
Mr. Hubble’s name is passed down among other things by the largest and most technologically advanced space telescope ever built, launched into orbit in 1990 and still fully operational. Above the distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, the telescope sends extremely detailed images offering a view almost to the borders of space and time.
Among other things, forty years after the death of Hubble, the telescope that bears his name, made it possible to accurately determine the rate of expansion of the Universe.
The beginnings had not been very promising for the Hubble telescope. One of the main components, the parabolic mirror that NASA had commissioned from a specialized company, had proved defective and the images were below expectations. Luck would have it that the telescope was designed to be repaired in orbit by astronauts. During five Space Shuttle missions it was possible to replace components and update the software.
In 2019, in addition to the telescope, there were 2,000 artificial satellites orbiting the earth. Practically invisible, but now an integral part of our daily life. Satellites for communications, for navigation, for pollution verification, for the study of continents, for hurricane tracking. Satellites for weather forecasts, for the study of the atmosphere, military satellites and so on.
And scientist say that the increase will be exponential. For example, the American company Space X, set up by Elon Musk, creator of the Tesla electric car, plans to launch 12,000 satellites by 2027. 12,000!
Whatever the pros and cons of this space race, the fact remains that we have to deal with one reality: overcoming gravity is expensive.
Launches of the Space X carriers, currently considered the cheapest on the market, cost $ 133 million per launch, or something like $ 13,000 per kilogram placed into orbit.
It is therefore not surprising that alternatives to current technology are being sought, which is basically based on principles dating back to the first gunpowder rockets invented in China around 1200.
Among the different systems proposed there is the so-called space elevator. The concept, at the moment theoretical, foresees a cable stretched between a point on earth and a satellite placed in a geostationary orbit, that is, orbiting around the earth at a height and a speed that always keep it on the same vertical. The loads would move up and down this cable without the aid of rockets.
The biggest obstacle is obviously the cable itself. It should be at least 37,000 kilometers long and strong enough not to collapse under its own weight.
The only technology that could produce such a cable is that of nanotubes.
In 1985, the American chemist Richard Errett Smalley (1943 – 2005), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996, discovered that, in particular conditions, carbon atoms can arrange themselves to form microscopic hollow cylinders: carbon nanotubes.
Nanotubes exhibit extraordinary physical and chemical characteristics with potential uses in electronics, chemistry and even medicine. A theoretical computer using nanotubes instead of current silicon components would have mind-boggling performance and would break all current miniaturization barriers.
Nanotubes represent the strongest organic material ever made. An ideal nanotube would have a tensile strength 100 times greater than that of an equivalent sized steel bar with 6 times less weight.
So, at least theoretically, they could be used for the space elevator cable.
If, on the other hand, you want a more realistic application, spread a forest of nanotubes, vertically aligned like the hairs of a carpet, on a suitably treated aluminum sheet and you will get a new substance with a particular property: that of absorbing 99.995% of the light. Exactly what the engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did, naming it BlackestBlack.

A CASE OF SERENDIPITY

I nibble at my pencil while waiting for literary inspiration… A pencil, certainly not a plastic pen. Wood and flakes of paint have an ancient taste which reminds me of my childhood. Like the smell of Bakelite – a sort of ante-litteram plastic – and celluloid. I still remember the smell and taste of the celluloid duck that I always wanted to have in my bathtub (as a child, of course!).
Speaking of bathtubs, either you think of Marat or you think of Archimedes jumping out naked shouting Eureka! According to one of the many literary tales, seeing his own leg float, he came upon the principle that a body immersed in a fluid experiences a buoyant force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces (which is the reason why iron ships float). The intuition – probably legendary – of this law of hydrodynamics is a striking case of serendipity. Seren-what?
Let’s start at the beginning. Some places haven’t changed their name for centuries, others can’t keep a name that’s a name. Everyone today knows the state of Sri Lanka, but before 1972 it was called Ceylon. His oldest name was Serendib, no, in fact it was Taprobane: it was the Persians who called it Serendib.
In any case, the English writer Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797), in 1754, quotes in a letter the fable: “The three Princes of Serendib” in which the three characters of the title manage to save themselves from a series of misadventures by discovering by chance unexpected truths. Walpole thus coined the term serendipity, to indicate precisely the casual discovery of a result or of a positive fact. The word is more common in English, but exists in all European languages.
Believe me, although these writings of mine give the impression that everything is brilliant and connected, in reality much of what has been discovered or invented is the result of chance, of serendipity.
consider Friedrich Schönbein (1799 – 1868), a German transplanted to Basel in Switzeland (where he is buried).
One day in 1845, taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he began to do some chemistry experiments in the kitchen. After spilling some acid on the table, he tried to clean up the mess with his wife’s cotton apron (typical husband!) which he then hanged over the stove to dry. With the resulting spontaneous explosion, Friedrich realizes that: 1) he has discovered nitrocellulose (also called gun cotton), 2) that he has destroyed the stove.
A dangerous substance this gun cotton, immediately investigated by half the armies of Europe. Too bad that the first attempt to produce it on an industrial scale led to the explosion of the factory along with a large part of the village of Faversham in England. There is also a more romantic note: seven years later, Johann Strauss II will draw inspiration from nitrocellulose creating the “Explosions-Polka”, full of bombastic special effects.
Meanwhile the world was watching in dismay at the disappearance of the elephants (yes, there is a connection). Because of the ivory, of course. It was a matter of choice: elephants or billiard balls. To the point that the renowned New York firm Phelan & Collender offered a $ 10,000 reward to anyone who would find a replacement for ivory. An inventor, John Weasly Hyatt (1837 – 1920), in 1870, mixed Schönbein nitrocellulose with camphor and alcohol and invented a new type of plastic to which his brother gave the name of celluloid. This new miracle of chemistry soon appeared in collars, buttons, fountain pens, vases and of course in billiard balls (curiosity: ping pong balls are still made of celluloid).
Eighteen years later, a former banker named George Eastman (1854 – 1932) will patent a flexible, celluloid-based photographic film. Within a few years, this new support will launch the film industry.
The Eastman’s patent is from 1889 and the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, preparations were in full swing for the inauguration of a colossal engineering work: a tower 324 meters high, designed by a person already well known in America for having erected a few years earlier, in the port of New York, a huge copper statue whose original title was: La liberté éclairant le monde, or the Statue of Liberty. The above mentioned tower, although impressive, was actually meant as a temporary structure: it only served as decoration at the entrance of the 1900 Paris Exposition, on the centenary of the Revolution. The iron structure – as you might have guessed – bears the name of its creator: Gustav Eiffel (1832 – 1923). Gustav had actually designed it for Barcelona, for a previous World Exposition, but the Spaniards had replied that they could hardly afford such an expensive horror and so it was sold – let’s say, second-hand – to the French. Just consider: if things had turned out differently all of us today would go to Barcelona to see the famous Eiffel Tower!
There would be a lot to tell about the tower and the exhibition, but let’s just limit ourselves to the strip under the balustrade of the first balcony. In relief in the iron band, we will see the names of 72 scientists who have given prestige to France. Their names were canceled at the turn of the century and then re-integrated in 1986. Henri Giffard, one of the aforementioned, was the first to mount a steam engine on a suppository-shaped balloon and to conclude a controlled flight in 1852. The big improvement over the balloon consisted in the ability to steer and change directions, not depending on the wind, so the machine was called a dirigible or, more commonly an airship.
Fifty years earlier, an engineer in Napoleon’s army during the Egyptian campaign had tried to impress both his Boss and the Egyptians with a balloon flight to celebrate French glory. Unfortunately the machine had caught fire and the Egyptians were rather unimpressed. Our engineer, Nicolas Jacques Conté (1755 – 1805), was advised not to deal with aviation again and therefore turned to another problem. How to replace graphite in blocks from England that was no longer available due to the embargo. He thus discovered a system that made it possible to mix graphite and ground clay and insert everything between two half-shapes of cedar wood.
What did he invent? the Conté Crayon, still in use today, and one of the ancestors of the pencil I’m nibling on.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN ARIANS

I’m rewatching a VHS cassette – a historical relic from when my daughter was a child – with Walt Disney’s classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Soft family-safe version of the original tale by the german brothers Grimm in which, among other things, the queen eats the heart of a boar that she believes to be Snow White’s. So let’s talk about Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: scholars, linguists, authors of a dictionary of the German language in 32 volumes which is still today one of the most important etymological dictionaries of that language, but known above all for their impressive collection of fairy tales. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many others, owe their fame to the version published in 1812 by the brothers from Hanau near Frankfurt. By the time of the last edition of 1857, the Grimms had collected 211 fairy tales. Warning! nothing to do with the sweetened and happy ending versions we are used to inspite of the brothers self-censoring by changing the vengeful and murderous mothers of traditional tales into stepmothers or witches. And I can assure you that many fairy tales, in the original version, would be unsuitable even for our modern youth.
Little Red Riding Hood for example (not part of the Grim’s tales), existed as an oral fairy tale in various versions, one for all: the wolf makes Little Red Riding Hood undress and eats her after she gets into bed with him. End of the story. No hunter and happy ending.
The eponymous red hood was instead the invention of Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703) who, having lost his job as secretary to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister, decided to spend the long winter evenings creating a new literarary genre: that of the fairy tale. Perrault published in 1697 the “Tales of Mother Goose” with the stories of Cinderella (he invented the famous crystal slipper) Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, and so on. Perrault had a brother, Claude (1613 – 1688), an architect, known for designing the east facade of the Louvre. Claude had obtained the post by ousting none other than the italian sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680), who traveled expressely to Paris in June 1665 at the invitation of the king and then returned to Rome empty-handed. He had been welcomed – we would say at the station, if there had been one – by an emissary of the king: Paul Fréart de Chantelou, collector and patron.
Chantelou showed him around the city and introduced him to the celebrities of the time, keeping an accurate diary of Bernini’s five months in Paris. In the collector’s stable we find Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665), a French neoclassical painter, also a resident of Rome, who, being repeatedly invited to return to Paris, will accept only when Chantelou picks him up in person. Received with all honors by Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, Poussin takes the opportunity to recommend a close friend and Roman roommate of his: Francois Duquesnoy, a depressed and sickly sculptor. “Sure,” replies the king “Tell him to come and establish the royal academy of sculpture in Paris”. Duquesnoy departs for London, but dies along the way. Thanks anyway.
The academy will be founded 5 years later and will be reorganized by that workaholic who was Jean-Baptiste Colbert (the same one who had fired Mother-Goose-Perrault).
Colbert, minister of finance under Louis XIV, is one of those characters whose curriculum requires a volume. In addition to having reorganized and healed the rather exhausted finances of the kingdom, he was Secretary of the Navy, Minister of Commerce, the Colonies and the Royal House, founder of the Academy of Sciences, of the Astronomical Observatory of Paris (erected by Claude Perrault, brother of Mother-Goose etc.), founder of the Gobelins tapestry manufacturers and so on. It was during his tenure that the first privileged companies were founded. Trade agencies promoted to attract private capital to support commercial and colonial initiatives. The state granted them various privileges such as exemption from taxes and the monopoly on trade. Among them, the French East India Company in charge of trade with the Indian Ocean. Similar companies already existed in England and Holland. The oldest was the famous british East India Company which soon led to the ruin of its French counterpart by conquering all possessions in India. The english East India Company was, through wars and complex events, the basis of the future British Empire and its possessions. And here (India) we meet another interesting character. William Jones (1746 – 1794), English, linguist and scholar who, as a teenager spoke Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic and Chinese and, reportedly, knew thirteen languages well by retirement and twenty-eight others reasonably. After studying law he became an assistant judge at the Supreme Court of Bengal (region now divided between India and Bangladesh). Jones is known today for his observation that Sanskrit (the ancient language of South-East Asia), appears to have a common root with Greek and Latin languages and that it could be be further related to Gothic and the Celtic languages.
The idea of a proto-language at the root of those later called Indo-European languages, launched in Europe the idea of an ancient superior race from which all Europeans descended. The Aryan race which, driven by an irresistible thirst for discovery and knowledge, had arrived in Europe creating the foundations of our civilization. Of course – it was said – the true descendants are tall and blond (like the peoples of the north), certainly not dark skinned people or – God forbid – the Jews.
Jacob Grimm himself, one of the two brothers mentioned above, believed that fairy tales were part of the Aryan tradition. He writes: “… The vocation and courage of these peoples, united by a common origin and destined for the highest peaks, are demonstrated by the fact that European history was made exclusively by them”. Amen.
You have probably guessed who later became an enthusiastic supporter of these theories.
And the theories of Nazism did not have their supporters only in Europe. In the 1930s, the American Fritz Julius Kuhn founded the German American Bund of America, an organization whose official purpose was to promote in the USA a positive vision of Nazi Germany, in reality a sort of Nazi party on American soil. During the Berlin Olympics of ’36, Kuhn managed to meet Hitler for a few minutes, transforming the meeting into a kind of blessing of the Führer for his American activities.
A contemporary writes: “In the years leading up to the conflict, there was a small but avid group of followers of the Nazi party. There were open meetings, anyone could participate … ” and then he goes on to point to a well-known character, a frequent visitor to those meetings (“He’s never absent… ”).
The writer is Art Babbit, a Hollywood designer, and the character he refers to … Walt Disney of course.

BATTERIES, SHOCKS AND BOTTLES

I’m rummaging disconsolately and a little desperate in various drawers and containers (my wife has a penchant for cramming assorted bits and objects into a bowl in the kitchen) in search of… batteries.
Nowadays, the two essential elements of our existence seem to be chargers and batteries. The ones I need for my remote are named AAA. It took me a while to learn it but now, when I go to buy them, I feel almost like a nuclear scientist. The name seems to be born with the first distinction of batteries in A for low voltage and B for high voltage. By the 1940s, the letter system was universally accepted. The letters now refer to the battery measurements. For example, AA measure 50.5mm x 14.5mm.
The original intention was to start from A and use the subsequent letters of the alphabet for batteries of increasing size (B, for example, is still used in England for certain bigger bicycle batteries). The problem turned out to be that, instead of increasing in size, batteries have shrunk, and therefore we have the AA, AAA and AAAA, indicating increasingly smaller sizes.
Manufacturers of electronic gadgets prefer to prioritize their own individual layout and space requirements rather than international standards, so today there are in fact more than 300 different battery sizes (not to mention chargers!).
Returning to the origins (which is somewhat the purpose of these Connections), we must mention the concept of electricity. That there was a particular phenomenon in nature, such as what we now call electricity, had been noted since ancient times. For example, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, up to the Romans, had obeserved the discharges of certain fish such as the electric eel, the torpedo and over two hundred other species.
Furthermore, different cultures had observed that certain non-ferrous substances, when rubbed, could attract other light objects, such as feathers (what we now call static electricity).
Thales of Miletus (about 640/625 BC – 548/545 BC) Greek philosopher and mathematician, performed in-depth analysis of natural phenomena, and – according to later historians – writes about magnetism within a broader discourse on the soul (psyché) as a force that moves everything, distinguishing between a magnet that attracts iron from amber that attracts other substances when rubbed.
Incidentally, magnet derives from the Greek and means stone of Magnesia, a locality in Asia Minor, known for its deposits of magnetite.
The centuries pass and in 1600, William Gilbert (1544 – 1603), physician and philosopher, takes up the distinction and describes these attractions using the term Electricus from the Greek Elektron, amber, in the sense of “magnetic like amber”. To him, magnetism is a kind of “effluvium” (fluid) similar to a sea current that after beaching returns to the sea.
You may have heard of Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), mathematician, typographer, scientist, and one of the founding fathers of the United States. As most people know, in 1752, during a thunderstorm, he attaches a key to a long cable that ends in a wet kite.
There were two possibilities: one, that he would die struck by lightning or, two, that some minor discharge would reach his hand. Since the second case came true, he was able to deduce – and write – that lightning strikes are electrical discharges.
As scientists, intent on studying and understanding the forces of nature, became more familiar with electrical phenomena, there were confronted by two challenges: on the one hand to generate artificially some form of electric charge, on the other to store it and thus control it. The first was solved, starting from the 1700s, in laboratories all over the world, with the electrostatic machine. These devices are basically the modern version (for the time) of the wool sweater that you take off in the dark, in winter, and it sparkles and attracts your hair or the shock you get when shaking someone’s hand in dry weather. And if you want to look at your carpet with more respect, take notice that its static electricity discharges can reach 30,000 volts.
To build an electrostatic machine, first take a glass disc, then glue thin metal strips on both sides like the spokes of a bicycle, and finally put it on a support that allows it to rotate. Now place two small spheres, metal or leather, barely touching the glass.
Spin the disc and the two balls will be charged with static electricity. And don’t underestimate the result! the tensions generated can be very important.
The one described is, for the sake of brevity, one of the many possible models: a stage in a long progress that continued until the early 1900s. There were machines that used, cylinders, rotating globes, different materials, multiple discs, ribbons and so on.
Ok, we have built the machine, now we have to put the generated electricity in a bottle… literally.
The idea came to two scientists: a German priest, Ewald Georg von Kleist, and the Dutch Pieter van Musschenbroek from Leyden.
The first, starting from erroneous theories, was lucky enough in 1745 to receive a shock that literally threw him across the room. He believed, In fact, according to the parameters of the time, that electricity was a fluid, and thought therefore that he could store the electricity generated by an electrostatic machine, within a glass bottle full of alcohol. After sticking a nail into the cork and taking it in his hand, he had the aforementioned mishap, which, in a way, proved his point. He wrote about this interesting effect even though he didn’t understand why it had happened.
The news spread through the laboratories of Europe to the ears of Pieter van Musschenbroek from Leyden.
He too did not go much beyond a series of tests and shocks but, perhaps because of better social connections, he ended up being connected to subsequent developments. The final product is called a Leyden jar from the name of the town where Musschenbroek was working and teaching: a glass bottle with two separate metal sheets lining both the inside and the outside and a cap from which a thread or chain hangs inside the bottle touching the sheet at the bottom.
Result: if you take the electrostatic machine described above and connect it to the Leyden jar, the electric charge is “captured” by the two foils (take it for granted: the explanation would be too long).
The two devices became the essential tools of any serious laboratory, technical institute or science classroom, leading slowly to a better understanding of electricity.
The next major conceptual step that we can only hint at was the discovery in 1831 of the relationship between magnetism and electricity by Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867). Pass an electric current around an iron core, for example by wrapping an electric wire around a nail, and you will have a magnet, that is an electromagnet. Rotate a spool of electric wire inside a magnetic field and, with the necessary precautions, you can generate electricity.
Thus, between 1830 and 1860, the dynamo and, reversing the principle, the first electric motor were invented by various scientists, mainly in Italy and France.
And the rest is history …
Let’s take a step back. Do you remember Benjamin Franklin? In 1748, Benjamin, elaborating on the principle of the Leyden jar, connected eleven glass plates on which he applied thin sheets of lead and illustrated the results of the experiment in a letter, where he enthusiastically writes about the gun salute which should greet the discoveries of scientists and researchers.
Referring to this bombastic recognition and perhaps inspired by the vision of a 20 gun salute, since a row of four guns or the set of howitzers lined up along one side of a ship are called batteries, he calls his invention an ‘electric battery’.
Meanwhile, I found mine.