When a Writer’s Math Skills Come in Handy

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Think writing novels means you won’t have to do math? Think again.

Innumerable times, I have had to pause to remember a character’s age. But truly complex calculations—involving books, Google maps, and a calculator—come when I must figure out how long it takes a character to travel. Visit S.K. Keogh’s The Jack Mallory Chronicles for my guest post about travel times in the Dark Ages.

Wife of Bath

A 15th century rendition of the Wife of Bath from Canterbury Tales (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

We Have a Title: Queen of the Darkest Hour

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It’s the readers’ first impression and one of the toughest things to come up with: What do we call this book?

How do we entice the readers in a few words and give them a clue to what they are about to read? Not an easy task considering it takes 100,000 words or so to tell the story.

I struggled with the title for my third novel, which is very much a work in progress. For The Cross and the Dragon, I used two symbols of my heroine’s life. Her cross sits beside her iron dragon amulet. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar struck me as I pondered what it would have been like for the pagan Saxon heroine of my second book to witness the destruction of a sacred monument.

I left my third novel untitled for a while but got tired of calling it Book No. 3. So I slapped in Lady Queen Fastrada, naming it after my protagonist. Problem is, few people today know who Fastrada was, although everyone has heard of her husband, Charlemagne. When I contemplated the title, I riffed off of “queen” and “royal.”

I had thought of The Cruelty of Queen Fastrada, stealing a phrase from Einhard’s posthumous biography of Charlemagne, but my take on the monarch’s fourth wife is that she wasn’t cruel by medieval standards, just made into a scapegoat after she and her widower were dead. I intended irony but worried that readers would think the book was about a bad woman doing bad things.

Queen of the Dark Days came to mind when I read a similar phrase in an academic paper. Fastrada was queen during the darkest days of her husband’s reign—an epidemic among the horses in the army, a coup attempt by one of his sons, and a disastrous canal project. The last occurred after my story ends.

But I decided Pepin the Hunchback’s rebellion against his father was indeed the darkest hour of Charlemagne’s rule, and thus the title.

There is more work to do—finishing the book is the top priority. But I finally have something to call the book. And to celebrate, I’ve posted the most recent draft of the first chapter on my website, kimrendfeld.com.

From the 19th century Costume of All Nations

From the 19th century Costume of All Nations

Same Object, Different Symbols

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Objectively, they are just a patterned piece of cloth and a stone slab, but what they symbolize depends entirely on the viewer.

The Confederate battle flag connotes heritage or oppression in the eyes of the beholder. Go back several centuries and you might find similar arguments about the portable altar. Well, arguments imagined by a novelist. The pagans Charlemagne’s Franks warred against did not write down their side of the story.

Both Christians and pagans would agree the portable altar was a symbol of Christian victory. While one side found comfort and reassurance from a familiar worship service and the literal presence of Christ in the wine and altar bread, the other would see oppression. This tension was a part of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, as you will see in this excerpt:

The stink of smoke lingered where the Irminsul had once overlooked the river, and an odd display sat amid the charred pieces of the pillar. Deorlaf made a face as if he had smelled a rotten egg. It was bad enough the Franks had burned the Irminsul. Now they had to desecrate the ground with their symbols.

A jewel-encrusted cross rested on a table, which was adorned with an embroidered cloth glittering with precious stones. In front of the table lay a glossy stone slab in a gem-studded gold frame. An eight-sided wooden structure, each wall the length of a hut, stood a few paces away.

For more about why a portable altar was as important as weapons to a medieval army, see my post in English Historical Fiction Authors.

P.S. For the record, I believe the Confederate battle flag belongs in a museum with other artifacts of the past, not the grounds of a statehouse, the home of today’s government.

An 11th century portable altar An 11th century portable altar from the Walters Art Museum (public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Attempts to Visualize Atoms

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In this installment on the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman delves into early efforts to build models of atoms.—Kim

By Dean Zollman

At the beginning of the 20th century, models of the atom were being created. The atoms could not be seen, but a significant amount of knowledge was available to use as a foundation for a model. In particular, observations included:

  • the periodic table
  • the light (spectra) emitted from different types of gases
  • the existence of the electron
  • matter with a much greater mass than could be explained by the tiny mass of the electron
  • radioactivity

Dean ZollmanA complete model of the atom should explain all of these observations. In this post, I will describe two quite different models of the atom. Each had its limitations, but one of them was more off-base than the other. Next time, I will discuss a definitive experiment that eliminated one of them and prepared the way for a major change in thinking based, somewhat, on the other.

 

Plum Pudding, Anyone?

Joseph J. Thomson (1856-1940) had first thought about how the atom might look when he used the idea that atoms were vortices in the ether. (See a post from a few months ago, “Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge.”) That model led him to a study of cathode rays and the discovery of the electron, which I discussed in “Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists.” So, it was natural that Thomson would take these ideas and create a model of the atom based on the electron, one that is discussed in many chemistry and physics books.

The first thing that Thomson (and everyone else) needed to deal with was that ordinary matter does not have an electrical charge. Yet, Thomson and others had measured that the electron had a negative charge. So, something with a positive charge must be in every atom to balance the negatively charged electrons. Thomson speculated that the electrons were embedded in matter that had a uniform positive electrical charge. The drawing below shows the basic idea.

"Plum pudding" model of atom

Thomson’s atomic model with electrons embedded in a uniform positive charge. (Released into the public domain by its author, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thomson’s model reminded many other scientists of the British dessert plum pudding. So it became known as the plum pudding model of the atoms. The plums (electrons) were scattered through the pudding (positive charge). If Thomson had been an American, we might have called it the raisin bread model. But he was British. As can be seen in this political cartoon, even long before Thomson’s time plum puddings were well know as models for other things.

 

An 1805 cartoon, "The Plum Pudding in Danger."

An 1805 cartoon, “The Plum Pudding in Danger.” (James Gillray, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Thomson had written his first paper on the model that atoms were vortices in the ether, he had used the work of Alfred Marshall Mayer (1836-1897). As I said earlier, Mayer floated magnetic needles on water with a larger magnet held above them. For two to 20 magnetized needles, he looked at the stable configuration created by the attractive and repulsive forces of the small magnets in the presence of the larger magnet. When he looked at the results (see below), he saw some periodic behavior in the patterns. (You can watch a video of school students repeating this experiment.)

Experiment with magnets

From The American Journal of Science and Arts 16, 252 (1878)

For his model of the atom that included electrons, Thomson imagined that the electrons in the “pudding” would repel each other in the same way that the small magnets did. So, an atom with three electrons would have an arrangement of negative charges similar to that shown in Mayer’s drawing. Most important were changes such as those shown going from five to six “electrons.” A ring suddenly becomes a ring with an electron at the center. Such changes could be reminiscent of the changes as one works through the periodic table.

However, Thomson went beyond this analogy. Using equations for the forces applied on each other by electrical charges, he calculated the configurations of electrons in his model of the atom. He was able to conclude that behavior similar to the periodic table could come from concentric rings of electrons. Early on, Thomson had speculated that every atom had thousands of electrons. They needed many to make up the mass. Thus, atoms with a large number of concentric rings were possible. Later, Thomson decided against the atom having “many thousands” of electrons.

To address the light spectra coming from atoms, Thomson needed the electrons to vibrate. By vibrating at appropriate frequencies, light could be emitted.

Radioactivity was difficult to explain. Thomson connected it to the vibrations of the electrons. He noted that as the electrons gave off light, they would gradually decrease their speed. At some critical slow speed, the system would explode. Then, “[t]he kinetic energy gained in this way might be sufficient to carry the system out of the atom, and we should have, as in the case of radium, a part of the atom shot off.”

Some of Thomson’s logic seemed a little weak. For example, his argument about radioactivity implied that all elements should be “shooting off” electrons. But they did not. Of course, the plum pudding model was just a beginning, so maybe further refinement would solve some of the issues. As we will see next time, a bigger concern was looming.

A Much Bigger Model for the Model

Hantora Nagaoka

Hantaro Nagaoka (Photographer unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hantaro Nagaoka (1865-1950), a physicist at the Imperial University of Tokyo, had a quite different idea about the structure of atoms. He used the planet Saturn as an analogy. With gravitation, all objects with mass are attracted to all other objects. Yet, Saturn’s rings are stable in orbit around the planet. In 1859, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) had published On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn’s Rings, which provided a mathematical analysis of this stability even though the particles in the rings were being attracted to the planet. Nagaoka reasoned that similar logic could be applied to the electrons orbiting a positive core.

Nagaoka concluded that the atom had a massive positively charged center and the negatively charged electrons orbited around this core. In keeping with the Saturn analogy, all of the electrons orbited at the same distance from the core. Each of the electrons is attracted to the positive core, and at the same time they are repelled by each other. Because of this repulsion, the system will be stable only if the distance between adjacent electrons is equal. Thus, the electrons are distributed uniformly around the positive core.

Atom model

By Белых Владислав Дмитриевич (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

With reasoning very similar to Thompson, Nagaoka postulated that light was emitted from an atom when a “disturbance” occurred. Vibrations of the electrons caused the light to be emitted with spectra that had been observed. He concluded that some atoms could have several rings of electrons to be able to produce the complex spectra that were produced.

To explain radioactivity, he also relied on the disturbances in the atoms. He stated, “If the disturbance continues for a sufficiently long time, the ring will be torn asunder and the system will fly off with great velocity. If the particles are electrons, those in the rings will give rise to beta rays and the central positive charge will form alpha rays.”

So, he “explained” the existence of two types of radioactivity. Further, he argued that the disturbances would be more likely in heavier atoms than in light ones. He concluded, “This probably accounts for the remarkable radioactive property of radium.” While all of this sounded good, Nagaoka did not have solid mathematics behind his reasoning and speculations. His atom seemed to make as much sense and Thompson’s, but he was not able to put it on firm theoretical ground.

A few years later, British physicist John William Nicholson (1881-1955) developed the Saturn model of the atom further. He was able to connect it better to spectra and to the periodic table. However, based on the laws of electricity and magnetism, he concluded that atoms could not have only one electron. The stability of a ring of electrons required several electrons, at least.

There were other models in the early 20th century. They tended to fall into one group similar to Thompson’s in which the positively charged objects and the negative electrons intermingle in some fashion and another group similar to Nagaoka in which the positive and negative charges were separated but held together in an atom by the mutual electrical attraction. To decide which nature favored required a very careful experiment. That experiment, which we will look at next time, set the stage for atomic physics from then to now.

Post script: In researching for this post, I discovered a professional connection between me and Nagaoka. One of Nagaoka’s students was Hideki Yukawa. Yukawa was the PhD mentor for Carl Levinson. Levinson was my PhD mentor. So, in some way, Nagaoka was my great-grand-mentor.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

The Accidental Discovery of Radioactivity

Marie Curie: A Determined Scientist

Pierre and Marie Curie Extract Radium – and Pay a High Price

Scientists Delve into Radioactivity and Make Their Own Discoveries

Midwifery: Magic or Medicine in the Dark Ages

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At the 2015 Historical Novel Society conference, I served on the panel “Midwifery: Magic or Medicine” with authors Judith Starkston, Lisa Yarde, and Sam Thomas. Our moderator was the gracious Diana Gabaldon (yes, that Diana Gabaldon). Judith, Lisa, Sam, and I discussed midwifery in the eras we write about. Below is the script for my speech. I followed Judith, who spoke of ancient Hittites and their practice for swinging a ewe over a mother in labor.

Before we abandon the livestock and move a few centuries ahead to discuss midwifery in early medieval times, I have a question for you.

16th century Baptism

A 1513 depiction of the baptism of a baby born by a dead mother, provided by Wolfgang Sauber (GFDL via Wikimedia Commons)

True or false? The early medieval Christian midwife was the only layperson with the authority to baptize.

By a show of hands, how many think this is true? False?

The answer is true, and this truth reveals a lot. It reveals the inherent dangers of childbirth. It reveals how the fate of the soul was more important than the health of the body. And it reveals the midwife’s unique place in her society.

I became interested in midwifery because I needed to write childbirth scenes. I have two in my latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and three in my work in progress. I would love to say I’m so organized that I knew this was a place to introduce tension and show how religion, magic, and medicine intersected—which is true. But the real reason is a character was about to have her baby, and she would rely on a midwife.

Before I talk about who the midwife was, let’s put midwifery into the context of early medieval beliefs and grim realities. Early medieval folk saw childbirth as a part of life, not a part of medicine. So a doctor would not be welcome in the lying-in chamber, nor any other man for that matter. Everyone involved would think the best place for the men, including the baby’s father, was the church, where they would pray for a safe delivery.

Medieval folk also accepted that young people died. In the days long before vaccines, half the children didn’t reach age 5. In addition, more than one of every three adult women died during their child-bearing years. With those kinds of statistics, it’s easy to imagine that everyone knew someone who died in childbirth or from its complications and everyone knew someone who had lost a child.

So it’s no surprise the faithful were concerned with what happened after death. They heard about hell during the sermons, and families paid alms to the Church so the deceased could avoid time in purgatory.

No matter where the birth took place—a dark, low-ceilinged lying-in chamber of a noble house or a one-room peasant’s hut—medieval people understood the fate of an expectant mother and her baby was far from certain. The process was so risky, mothers were urged to confess their sins as their time drew near. With no guarantee of what would happen to the body, the mother could at least make sure her soul was ready if things went wrong.

And as you’ve no doubt ascertained, a lot of things did go wrong. A common misfortune is that the uterus does not contract quickly enough to stop postpartum bleeding. A rare condition I used in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is for the placenta to come out first, which would cause fatal hemorrhaging for the mother.

Today, this condition is caught in the ultrasound and the baby is delivered by Cesarean section. Midwives performed this procedure in the Middle Ages, but only as a last resort, when the mother was dead or close to it.

All these risks underscore the spiritual component of the midwife’s duties. If the newborn was in danger of dying, the medieval midwife would baptize the baby. The stakes were much higher than a blessing or an affirmation of faith. Early medieval Christians believed Saint Augustine’s teaching that an unbaptized infant, even one who died in the womb, would spend eternity with the damned, although they would receive the lightest of punishments. Harsh, I know, but Saint Augustine’s rationale was that they still bore Adam’s original sin, which only baptism could remove. The Church modified this stance in the 13th century, when schools adopted St. Thomas Aquinas’s argument for limbo, where unbaptized infants would not feel pain but still wouldn’t go to heaven yet be unaware of their loss.

Still, not being able to see your child ever again crushes the great hope of Christianity. So I can imagine a midwife would splash the water and say the prayer, or what passed for Latin, if there was any hope of life, no matter how faint. One documented case has a midwife baptizing a newborn when she saw the baby’s crown and giving it a name appropriate for a boy or girl.

So, who was the midwife? I must admit that the research amounts to a best guess, both by novelists and scholars. Midwives in eighth century Francia were illiterate, like most of the population. The skills were passed down from mother to daughter. Much of my research came from one of my daily life books and an academic paper called “Capturing the Wandering Womb.” The earliest explicit description of a Caesarean is from the 15th century, although I’ve not had to use that. Since all births until a few decades ago were natural, videos of natural childbirth from people with no sense of privacy also are a good resource.

Like Judith’s ancient priestess, the early medieval midwife’s tools included a birthing stool and a sharp knife. She didn’t use an onion or a ewe, but she might employ the foot of a crane, a piece of jasper, ointment with fennel to ease pain, and a potion with ergot to speed contractions and stop postpartum bleeding. She knew to wash and oil her hands and might order the mother’s hair be loosened and all pins removed, doors and cupboard drawers to be open, and knots to be untied. And she might use spells.

You might be surprised the same layperson with the sole authority to baptize would turn to magic. After all, didn’t the Church preach against magic? Well, yes, officially, but darn near everyone used it anyway. Even a priest might hire an expert to interpret dreams. The laity wore amulets alongside their crosses. They said special incantations for a good harvest or to heal a sickness.

Unlike the attitudes in Sam’s era centuries later, magic was seen as a tool for both good and evil. Now, there were severe penalties for evil magic, like being sealed in a barrel and thrown in the river, and contraception was consider sorcery. But good magic was a part of everyday life. A midwife who didn’t whisper a spell in the mother’s ear might have been seen as incompetent.

Some of the spells became Christianized. The Church perhaps decided that if you can’t beat them, co-opt them. One incantation for the lying-in chamber asks the child to come forth the way Lazarus emerged from his tomb.

The clergy seemed more upset if the midwife got the baptismal words wrong. I stumbled across a late 13th, early 14th century case in which a midwife was barred because she invoked God and Saint John rather than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ve yet to come across anyone in my era angry that the midwife used a spell.

And it’s not like such a thing could be a secret. The midwife had assistants, and the mother’s friends attended the birth and lent their support. When the baby was born, the midwife would tie off the umbilical cord and cut it at four fingers’ length. She bathed the child, rubbed them with salt, and used honey on their palette and gums to stimulate their appetite. She was the one present the child to the father.

The midwife’s duties didn’t end with the birth. A surviving mother would remain in her lying-in chamber for a month. In a noble house, her only visitors were the midwife and some female companions.

What I’ve come to conclude is that medieval people understood forces greater than themselves were at work everywhere in life, and childbirth was no exception.

Sources

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

“The History of Cesarean Technique” by Samuel Lurie, MD, and Marek Glezerman, MD, AJOG Reviews, December 2003

Limbo” by Patrick Toner. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, 1910.

Saint Augustine’s On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants (Book I)

Help Wanted: In Search of the Perfect Picture

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If you’ve visited my website (kimrendfeld.com), you will notice a new look. The idea behind the new WordPress theme is that it’s easier to read on all devices, whether they are laptop, tablet, or cell phone.

Just one problem: Alphonse Mucha’s Heraldic Chivalry, which I’ve used in the banner for this blog and my Facebook and Twitter pages, won’t work on my website. In the header field, any text upon it is illegible, and much of the picture is hidden when used as a tiled background image. The painting itself is dark, and I would like something brighter.

The background image now on my website is a photo I shot of flowers near Christy Woods on the Ball State campus. The yellows and greens work well with the book covers, but photo doesn’t say medieval.

So I am in search of another image, one that will work well on my website and my social media sites. I aiming for something that is in the public domain and will work in horizontal and vertical formats. And here, dear readers, is where I turn to you.

I’ve been searching through Carolingian manuscripts via Wikimedia Commons and like these two images.

Frontpiece for the Book of Genesis

Frontpiece for the Book of Genesis

 Morgan Library Lindau Gospels

Morgan Library Lindau Gospels

The first image is definitely medieval, but is the second too abstract? Will people not associate it with the Middle Ages?

Instead, should I use a cropped version (sans house that looks like a dancing mushroom) of this 14th century image of a man and woman and tile the rose motif?

From the Manesse Codex

From the Manesse Codex

Or should I use this detail from a 16th century piece?

Medieval flower detail

From Saint Dominic

Any suggestions? I would love to hear from you.

All images public domain, viz Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists Delve into Radioactivity and Make Their Own Discoveries

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In this installment on the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman demonstrates a truism of science—how one discovery leads to even more questions. In this case, researchers study the nature of the rays they’re observing and find that one element can indeed change into another.—Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanPerplexing questions about radioactivity faced researchers at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries:

  • What are the characteristics of the radiations emitted by the radioactive substances?
  • What was the source of energy for the emissions?
  • From where did the emissions come—inside the atom or outside?

People did not even know what to call the “stuff” that researchers such as Alexandre Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie were observing. The term “rays” was used by many people because of an analogy with the recently discovered X-rays. But most scientists did not know if the rays coming from uranium were similar to X-rays or something quite different. Further, they did not know if the rays from uranium differed from the rays from polonium or thorium. Sorting this situation out took several years and several physicists and chemists.

Ernest Rutherford in 1892

Ernest Rutherford in 1892. (Unknown photographer, published in 1939 in Rutherford: being the life and letters of the Rt. Hon. Lord Rutherford, O.M. (CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1931) was a critical player in determining what the rays were and what was left behind when they were emitted. He was born in New Zealand and came to the Cavendish Laboratory in the University of Cambridge in the U.K. in 1895. There, he was a doctoral student mentored by J.J. Thompson, who was to discover the electron during this time period. During his stay in Cambridge, Rutherford became interested in radioactivity. After finishing his studies, he moved to McGill University in Canada. In both the U.K. and Canada, he made some remarkable measurements.

He began his investigations with uranium. Because he had no reason to believe that the emanations (as Rutherford called them) from uranium should be the same as those from other radioactive elements, he specified that he was investigating the uranium rays. Early in his research, he learned that uranium emitted two types of rays. In his experiments, he allowed the rays to pass through different types of materials. He found that some of the rays would be stopped by thin pieces of materials, even a sheet of paper. But others would penetrate through reasonably thick material. He named the ones that were easily stopped alpha rays and the ones that penetrated deeply beta rays.

The way in which they penetrated material was just the first step in finding differences between the two types of rays. At an 1899 meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, Becquerel showed that the more penetrating rays of uranium (the beta rays) could be deflected by a magnetic field. To be deflected in this way an object needs to have an electrical charge. So this result indicated that the beta rays carried an electric charge.

The Curies carried out experiments to determine the type of electric charge. Recall that Pierre Curie had devised a very sensitive instrument for measuring electric charge. In early 1900, the Curies were able to report that the beta rays from radium had a negative charge. Becquerel was able to show that these rays could also be deflected by a high voltage. Using the direction and amount of the deflection, the researchers concluded that the highly penetrating beta rays were identical to the cathode rays (electrons) J.J. Thompson had discovered. They also concluded that the rays from one radioactive element were the same as those from another.

Introducing…the Gamma Ray

Many other people were also working on similar experiments. So, while the Curies and Becquerel were making measurements in Paris, Stefan Meyer (1872-1949) and Egon Schweidler (1873-1948) in Vienna made similar measurements about the deflection in a magnetic field. They were working with a small amount of radium that they had obtained from the chemist Friedrich Oskar Giesel (1852-1927). Thus, the identification of beta rays as electrons was well established by independent measurements.

During the same time period, several researchers concluded that alpha rays were not deflected by magnetic fields. If that were correct, alpha rays would not have an electric charge. We will return to this issue in a few paragraphs.

About the same time, Paul Villard (1860-1934) wanted to study some of the properties of cathode rays and beta rays. Because he was in Paris, he was able to obtain a small quantity of radioactive material from the Curies. He found that in addition to the alpha and beta rays, another emission was highly penetrating and could not be deflected by a magnetic field. Villard stated that these rays must be similar to X-rays. (This statement must have been at least partially speculation by Villard because he had made only a few measurements. But he was right. The radiation that we call gamma rays today is electromagnetic radiation just like X-rays but they have very high energy.)

Becquerel was not ready to believe Villard’s work. He stated that “the existence of these rays could not possibly have escaped attention in the experiments of Mr. and Mrs. Curie, nor in my own experiments.” However, a few months later he had to admit that the highly penetrating rays which could not be deflected were real.

The three radiations

The penetrating power of each of the three radiations. (Original by Stannered, derivative work by Ehamberg, CC BY 2.5, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons)

The name gamma rays for these emissions apparently came from Rutherford. Historians cannot find a specific publication where Rutherford coins the name. However, in her dissertation Marie Curie attributes the name for all three radiations to Rutherford.

Alpha rays presented a little bit of a challenge. Eventually, careful experimentation with large magnetic fields showed that the original conclusion that they were not deflected was incorrect. The deflection was small and in the opposite direction of the beta rays. The small deflection meant that alpha particles had much more mass than beta particles. The opposite direction indicated that their charge was positive instead of negative. Using magnetic fields, one can measure the ratio of the charge to the mass of a particle. Rutherford did this for the alpha particles and noted that the ratio was the same as for a helium atom. The conclusion was that the alpha particles were related to helium atoms but had a positive charge. (Later, we would learn that alpha particles are the nucleus of the helium atom. However, at this time no one knew about the nucleus.)

Radioaktivnoe izluchenie

An illustration of the motion of the three radiations in a magnetic field. The red and green blocks represent two poles of a magnet. The alpha particles move slightly to the left; the beta particles deflect more and to the right; and the gamma rays go straight through. (By Василиса Всегда, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Transmutation Is Real, but Not What Alchemists Wanted

For further investigations, Rutherford teamed up with a chemist Frederick Soddy (1877-1956). They looked at some properties of the material that was left behind after substances such as radium and thorium emitted the alpha, beta, or gamma rays. They eventually concluded that the original materials were transforming into different elements. The solid radium, for example, would emit an alpha particle and become the gas radon. Rutherford was the first to recognize that their data were conclusively showing that one type of atom was turning into another.

Later Soddy wrote, “I remember quite well standing there transfixed as though stunned by the colossal impact of the thing and blurting out. . . . ‘Rutherford, this is transmutation.’ Rutherford’s reply was, ‘For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists.’” (From “Ernest Rutherford: The ‘True Discoverer’ of Radon,” by James R. and Virginia R. Marshall, Bulletin of the History of Chemistry, Volume 28, Number 2, 2003)

The Alchemist by William Fetter Douglas, 1853.

The Alchemist by William Fetter Douglas, 1853. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, the alchemists of medieval times looked for ways to transmute elements, particularity change lead into gold. They failed, but hundreds of years later, scientists found that nature was transmuting elements. However, the end product of many transmutations was lead. Instead of changing a common element (lead) into a precious one (gold), nature was starting with a precious substance such as radium and converting it into lead.

The discovery of transmutation laid another issue to rest. If a radioactive element was changing into a different element, one could conclude that the emitted rays were coming from inside the atom. (Today we know that the particles are coming from the nucleus of the atom.)

By the early years of the 20th century, the source of energy for radioactivity was still a mystery. The solution to that mystery needed to wait for Albert Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity.

Rutherford returned to England and became a professor at the University of Manchester. There, he used alpha particles to probe into matter at a smaller level than anyone had done. We will look at that experiment in a couple of posts. Next time, we will look at some of the models of atoms that were devised based on knowledge around the beginning of the 20th century and were the motivation for Rutherford’s continued investigation of matter at a very small scale.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

The Accidental Discovery of Radioactivity

Marie Curie: A Determined Scientist

Pierre and Marie Curie Extract Radium – and Pay a High Price

Will a Rosary Get Me in Trouble with the History Police?

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Rosaries

By Ricce (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Those familiar with the history of rosaries might accuse me of something every historical novelist dreads: an anachronism. In this except from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, my heroine’s teenage son has decided to accumulate trade goods in order to free his mother and sister:

As they approached the table, Deorlaf patted a pouch at his belt that he had fashioned from scraps of cloth. Nodding at the woman, Deorlaf lifted a beaded object upon which hung a small wooden cross. It smelled of roses. Perhaps, Gerhilda would like this enough to include it in the trade for Mother and Sunwynn.

“My good woman, what is this?” Deorlaf asked in unaccented Roman, the result of weeks of toil.

“Beads to help you keep count of prayers to Our Lady and Our Father,” the woman answered. “Rub them.”

When Deorlaf did, the rose scent became stronger. The woman gave Deorlaf a gap-tooth smile. “I made those beads from roses. They always sell quickly, and this is the last one.”

The history police would point out that there is no evidence of medieval prayer beads made from roses. But who is to say they didn’t exist? Medieval folk would have had the materials and tools to make them. Rose petals can be ground into a paste, shaped into beads, and strung on a thread. It is possible an enterprising woman would see the flowers as an opportunity to make something to sell to pilgrims and other visitors to her city. So the prayer beads made from roses stay.

By the way, I never used the word “rosary” in Ashes nor do my characters “pray the Rosary”—those would be anachronisms. For why, see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sources

Use of Beads at Prayers” by John Volz, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Rosary” by Herbert Thurston and Andrew Shipman, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

 

The Prairie: Beauty or Fear?

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Konza PrairieStunning, isn’t it? The Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas, gives us a glimpse of the past. This is what settlers of European descent would have seen. I am awed by its beauty, shown here in late spring.

I must admit: I’m glad the soil was too shallow and rock for the plow, thus preserving this unique ecology of grasses (with deep, deep roots penetrating limestone), shrubs, and wildflowers, along with the galley forest near the waterways.

Wild prairie rose

Wild prairie rose

But I am a 21st century nature lover. If food were not a matter of going to a grocery store or a restaurant, would I still be enamored with this sight? It’s easy to forget our ancestors struggled for food. The line between starvation and plenty depended on the rain coming at the right times, the cattle staying well fed and healthy, and the grasshoppers not devastating the crops.

We and our ancestors would see a similar landscape, but how we felt about it could be very different.

Verbena

A type of verbena

Post-script: If you’re in Manhattan, Kansas, do see the Konza. It is unique in the truest sense of the word. And do yourself a favor and visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center to learn about the history and the science.

Photos by Randy Rendfeld

Medieval Misconception: Parents Did Not Bond with Their Babies

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The idea is plausible: Because so many medieval children died young – half didn’t make it to age 5 – parents did not become attached to their babies. In modern parlance, it’s a defense mechanism.

After all, this was an age of war and brutal justice. It just makes sense that medieval parents would hold off on affection until they could be more certain their child was going to live, right?

Not exactly. Paul the Deacon’s 783 epitaph for Charlemagne’s 40-day-old daughter Hildegard tells a different story: “Dear little maiden, you leave no little grief/Stabbing your father’s heart with a dagger.”

Medieval parents might have accepted the likelihood of burying at least one child, and it’s easy to imagine everyone knew someone who had lost a child. That sad reality might have made grieving parents feel less isolated.

But the epitaph proves that in the Dark Ages parents loved their kids, and even if the infant was baptized and the parents were certain they would see the child in paradise, death was as painful for them as it would be for us.

Baptism

A 16th century image of a baby being baptized after he was born of a dead mother (provided by Wolfgang Sauber GFDL via Wikimedia Commons).

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