Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890)

Richard Francis Burton is one of the most famous polyglots, speaking as many as 29 European, Asian, and African languages.  He traveled extensively throughout Asia, Africa, and Americas, including making the Haj to Mecca in disguise as a Muslim.  Amongst his credits are translating One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), bringing the Kama Sutra to publication, and being the first European to see Lake Tanganyika.



Sir Richard Francis Burton

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ibn Battuta (1304 - 1368)

Imagine the 1300's.  No trains, no cars, no cruise ships.  Now imagine traveling the breadth of the known world, around 75K miles (121K km), through Europe, Middle East, Persia, India, Far East, and Africa.  On camels, donkeys, horses, boats, and your own two feet--in about 30 years.  That is serious, serious traveling.

Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan Berber who held the record as the most well-traveled man for about say, 450 years (with the advent of the steam engine).  His story as written in his book, al Rihla (The Travels), was lost for centuries before being rediscovered in Algeria in the 1830's.  (See a map comparing his travels with those of the more famous Marco Polo and Zheng He.)


Islam for Today

Fordham University

Time magazine

Saudi Aramco World


Friday, November 11, 2011

Nellie Bly (1864 - 1922)

Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who pioneered undercover investigative reporting.  After ignoring her orders to stick to the gardening section of the paper, she wrote scores of articles about injustice, mostly at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.  Although her articles ranged from abject working conditions of young girls to the political oppression in Mexico, her passion for the disenfranchised was evident in all of them.  Her most famous exposé, "Ten Days in a Madhouse," was the result of faking insanity and getting herself committed to reveal gross maltreatment and abuse in a mental asylum. 

Her biggest claim to fame was attempting to travel the entire globe in 80 days November 1889 to January 1890, like Jules Verne's fictional Phineas Fogg.  She traveled light going through France (with a stop to visit Jules Verne himself), the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, before crossing the Pacific and arriving in San Francisco.  At that point, Pulitzer chartered a private train to get her back at 72 days.

Though she is featured this week as an intrepid traveler, Nellie Bly's legacy is that of an intrepid human who knew her passions and followed them, cultural restrictions be damned.

Nellie Bly Online 

Nellie Bly's Book "Around the World in 72 Days"


PBS American Experience

Thursday, November 10, 2011

James Holman (1786 - 1857)

James Holman was an officer in the British Navy when disease left him totally blind and in significant pain at age 25.   Instead of settling down comfortably on the Crown's "disability pension" of the time, he decided to travel the world.  Not just England.  Not just Europe.  He traveled the world to Africa, Asia, Australia, America, and more.  Blind.  In pain.  And poor.

This at a time when the blind were seen as complete invalids.  He explained that he was able to use human echolocation to navigate independently.

Then he would come home and write books about his travels.  An immensely gifted writer, he became known as "The Blind Traveler."  In today's terms, one can see him as the world's first travel blogger, who used his writing to help finance future travels.  In his own words:
The beauties of the beautiful are veiled before the blind.
Not so the graces and the bloom that blossom in the mind.
The beauties of the finest form are sentenced to decay.
Not so the beauties of the mind. They never fade away. (Source)
NPR:  Tales of a Blind Traveler


Sense of the World

A Voyage Around the World by James Holman

Intrepid World Travelers

This week, we'll look at early and astonishing travelers who explored their world extensively without the convenience of traveling we now know. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mary Somerville (1780 -1872)

Mary was quite neglected educationally until she discovered algebraic symbols in the puzzles of a fashion magazine.  She started teaching herself mathematics from some texts her brother's tutor got her.  Her parents were unsupportive and tried to discourage her.

When she was 24, she married.  Her husband, who was also unsupportive of her studies, died only three years later, leaving her an inheritance which allowed her to be independent.  Free from constraints by her parents or husband, she started studying astronomy and Newton's Principia.  She corresponded with William Wallace (of "Braveheart" fame), who advised her on building a mathematics library.  At age 32, she remarried, this time to a man supportive of her studies.  She started conducting experimentation (on magnetism) and writing scholarly books (Mechanism of the Heavens), which were so well received by the scientific community that the Royal Society commissioned a bust of her to place in their Great Hall.  After Caroline Herschel, she was the second woman to be elected into the Royal Astronomical Society.  King George III gave her a generous pension to employ her as a full time astronomer (equal to that given to William Herschel).   She hypothesized the a planet that influenced the orbit of Uranus, which led to the discovery of Neptune.  The algebraic concept of the "common variable" has been attributed to her.

She is an astronomer

University of St. Andrews

Women's Bios


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sophie Germain (1776 - 1831)

Sophie Germain decided when she was 13 that she wanted to study mathematics.  Despite all efforts by her parents to prohibit her from such masculine subjects, she persisted in teaching herself Greek, Latin, and Calculus.  When she was 18, the Ecole Polytechnique erroneously printed lecture notes for a departed student named Monsieur Le Blanc.  Assuming his identity, Germain submitted answers to problems and corresponded with the mathematician Joseph LeGrange.  Eventually, LeGrange learned Germain's true identity and mentored her in mathematics.

Germain continued to use M. Le Blanc's identity to correspond with the greatest mathematician of her time, Carl Gauss, when she took on the task of Fermat's Last Theorem.  From there, she moved on to physics (acoustics and elasticity).  She is widely celebrated today as a giant intellectual who loved math for the sheer joy of it.

NOVA:  Math's Hidden Woman

San Diego Supercomputer Center:  "Sophie Germain:  Revolutionary Mathematician"

University of St. Andrews

Wolfram Research

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Although Caroline Herschel was born into a German family of musicians, her mother thoroughly disapproved of any education for girls.  Caroline was a real life Cinderella downtrodden with housework and chores until at age 22, her brother William invited her to live with him in England.  He, too, needed a housekeeper--and a singer for his choir.

However, unlike his mother, he soon recognized a thirst for learning in Caroline and taught her mathematics (algebra, trigonometry, geometry) and English.  His hobby in astronomy led to his making powerful telescopes on his own, which Caroline learned to do as well.  When William became famous for discovering Uranus, he became a full-time astronomer with Caroline as his apprentice.  At age 36, she discovered her first comet. She received a salary from King George III as an assistant astronomer. She continued to discover more comets as well as complete an ambitious catalogue of currently known stars. 

Later, she would apprentice William's son, John Herschel, who became famous astronomer as well.  Together, they completed a catalogue of 2500 nebulae, which earned a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.  She was also awarded a Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.

Her tombstone carries an epitaph she wrote herself:
"The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens."

Agnes Scott College

University of St. Andrews, Scotland


Caroline Herschel's deep sky objects

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a child prodigy (at least five languages by age 9) and math geek extraordinaire. As the oldest of 21 children, she took over caring for her siblings when her mother died.  But that didn't stop her fiercely intelligent mind from writing a textbook on calculus in her spare time, a pioneering volume called Analytical Institutions that provided a comprehensive treatise of the relatively new math and brought disparate mathematicians together in dialogue.  The text so overwhelmingly impressed academicians that the Bologna Academy of Sciences (now part of University of Bologna) gave her an honorary degree and invited her onto its faculty.  This in a time when women were thought to not deserve an education.

She declined.  She chose a religious life helping the needy, which was her true passion.  Math was just a hobby.

Agnes Scott College

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hypatia (370 - 415)

Hypatia was one of the first notable women scholars.  Daughter of a professor, she was highly educated and taught alongside her father at the Alexandria Library in Egypt, without the limitations normally ascribed to women.  Amongst the topics she studied, taught, and wrote about were philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy.   She is regarded as the first woman to influence the body of mathematical ideas.

She was lynched by a Christian mob (flayed) for being a pagan in March 415 AD.  The prevailing theory is she was targeted by a Christian political rival (Cyril) for her popular support of the current pagan ruler of Alexandria (Orestes).

Hypatia's story was dramatized in the Spanish film, Agora, with Rachel Weisz playing Hypatia.



Agnes Scott College

Women Astronomer

Women Mathematicians and Scientists

It is hard for us to imagine a time when women were not allowed to use their minds, just because they were women.  This week we'll look at trailblazers who studied and excelled, despite the obstacles in their paths.

For more reading:

4000 Years of Women Scientists

Women Scientists in History

Women Astronomers

Women Mathematicians at About

Women Mathematicians at Agnes Scott College