Friday, July 20, 2012

Faking It

"DANCE, v. i.: To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with arms about your neighbor’s wife or daughter. There are many kinds of dances, but all those requiring the participation of the two sexes have two characteristics in common: they are conspicuously innocent, and warmly loved by the guilty." -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist, literary critic, and satirist during the end of the 19th century. Known to many as "Bitter" Bierce, he is now perhaps best known for his much-anthologized short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satiric book of definitions known as The Devil's Dictionary.

Less well known is a work written by Bierce and his co-conspirator, Thomas A. Harcourt, called The Dance of Death. Purportedly penned by one William Herman and published in 1877, the book was a hugely successful hoax that argued for the abolition of the waltz because the dance was a "dark vortex, within whose treacherous embrace so many sweet young souls have been whirled to perdition."

The instant popularity of The Dance of Death resulted in an impassioned rebuttal that was published the very same year. The Dance of Life, by a Mrs. Dr. J. Milton Bowers, was written "to check the insolence of a Philistine." To that end, she dissects their book chapter-by-chapter, providing strident counter-arguments throughout. Still, despite Mrs. Bowers's fiery invective (or perhaps on account of it), there are some who believe that the second book itself was also a brilliant hoax, written by either Bierce or someone who knew him.

Ambrose Bierce vanished some time after December 26th, 1913, while traveling as an observer with Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico, so unfortunately we'll never know whether The Dance of Life was a sincere if naïve defense or a second hoax that is still claiming unwitting victims. To see an extremely rare author’s copy of The Dance of Death, inscribed by Bitter Bierce himself, waltz over to the library and ask for Rauner Bierce 11. To see The Dance of Life, ask for Rauner Bierce 46.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Annus Mirabilis Papers

In 1905, during his now famous stint in the patent office, Albert Einstein published four articles in the scientific journal Annalen der Physik. This series of articles is often referred to as the Annus Mirabilis (extraordinary or miracle year) papers - reflecting their enormous impact on several key areas of modern physics.

The first article to be published was Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunk (June 9, 1905).  This paper discussed the photoelectric effect (electrons can be ejected from a material if a sufficiently energetic beam is focused on the material) and demonstrated how observations of the phenomena could be explained by postulating that light is composed of discrete packets or quanta whose energy is determined by the frequency of the ray.  Einstein ultimately received a Nobel Prize for this work.

The second article dealt with Brownian Motion - the movement of particles suspended in a fluid medium whose motive force is imparted by bombardment of the atoms of the fluid itself.  Entitled Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen (July 18, 1905) this paper strongly supported the idea that the atom was a real entity and also lent support to the field of statistical mechanics.

The third article discussed special relativity. Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper (September 26, 1905) demonstrated that Maxwell's equations for electricity and magnetism and the laws of mechanics could be reconciled at speeds approaching that of light, which was a fixed constant and so the same for all frames of reference.

The final paper of the "miracle year" was titled Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhängig? (November 21, 1905).  In this article Einstein presented one of the most famous equations of all time: E=mc2 (energy can be equated to the mass of an object times the square of the speed of light).  This energy is known as rest energy and is distinct from an object's kinetic and potential energies.

To see all the original publications ask for Rare Book QC1 .A6133 v.322 no.6 (photoelectric effect), Rare Book QC1 .A6133 v.322 no.8 (brownian motion), Rare Book QC1 .A6133 v.322 no.10 (special relativity) and Rare Book QC1 .A6133 v.323 no.13 (mass energy equivalence).