The last of the Radium Girls

Mae Keane, the last of the Radium Girls, died Saturday. She was 107 years old.

Mae Keane did not care much for the job she had during the summer of 1924, painting radioactive radium onto watch dials to make them glow in the dark.

The pay was 8 cents a dial and Keane, then 18, was not as fast as her supervisor wanted her to be. Keane and her co-workers at Waterbury Clock Co., all young women, were told they could paint faster if they dipped their brushes into the radium-laden paint and then sharpened the bristles with their lips. But the paint was bitter and Keane would not “lip-point,” as the practice was known.

“I made 62 cents one day,” Keane told The Courant 10 years ago. “That’s when my boss came to me and said I better find another job.”

Mae Keane

After years of Radium being added to everything from chocolate to lipstick, the death of five Radium Girls (along with the paint’s inventor) brought a light to the unforgivable conditions in US factories, and spurred the tightening of industrial safety and food, drug, and cosmetic regulations.

Even today, you can still walk through the graveyards of Radium City with a geiger counter, and know where the Radium Girls were buried.

A Fembot living in a Manbot’s Manputer’s world.

Little-known fact: The first computer programmers were all women. ENIAC was programmed by Jean Bartik, Marlyn Meltzer, Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli, Betty Snyder Holberton, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence.

Bartik and her colleagues debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make it work, she said. Early on, they demonstrated to the military brass how the computer worked, with the programmers setting the process into motion and showing how it produced an answer. They handed out its punch cards as souvenirs. They’d taught the massive machine do math that would’ve taken hours by hand.

Jean Jennings Bertik and Francis Bilas Spence

what is this thing you humans call... love?

Littler-known fact: Many of the first computers were also women! In the days before ENIAC, ‘computer’ was a job, not a machine, and thousands of women were recruited by the US Military to do ballistics research to supply weapons trajectories to soldiers and bombardiers. Top Secret Rosies, a documentary about WWII’s female computers, was released last month.

Erickson’s documentary focused on women plucked from high schools and colleges to work at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s. They moved into dorms and apartments and went through a rigorous introduction to ballistics calculations in order to do the job. It paid well, and the women were close. They played bridge, shared dinners and danced together in the university gardens when the war in Europe ended.

Stopping by Woods on a Rainy Fucking Evening

You may recall how I ballsed up Christmas.

Audra and I decided to have a new year’s do-over.

I made breakfast in bed, we gave each other gifts, and had pretty much the greatest time that two people can have.

This is the singing bowl she gave me (like her, it is amazing):

2011 is going to be a great year.

During the solstice, a handful of us tried to watch the eclipse, but were thwarted by cloud cover. I’m not big on arbitrary holidays, but I love the solstice, and I love eclipses. Astronomical events bring me a kind of clockwork peace; a reminder that no matter how hard we might fuck things up, everything’s going to keep going. The solstice is when I think about what I’ve done in the last six months, and what I’m going to do in the next. A starting point and a finish line.

Eclipses are incredible, regardless of what kind they are. We are very lucky, on this island earth. Do you know how rare total solar eclipses must be, out there across the stars? They’re not a perfectly normal, common effect of planetary motion, like a sunrise, or the waxing of a moon. It just so happens that our sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, and 400 times further away. That’s why the disk of the moon covers the body of the sun almost perfectly, letting us see the corona. And in a few hundred million years, the moon will have moved far enough away from the earth that there will never be another eclipse.

Before then, remember to look up.

Hα Hα!

Bad Astronomy presents The Top 14 Astronomy Pictures of 2010:

The Sun’s surface puts out light at all wavelengths, but the surface isn’t solid. It’s a gas, and it tapers off with height. Normally, a thin gas in space emits light at very specific colors as electrons jump from one energy level to another in the individual atoms. But compressed gas in the thicker, denser part of the Sun mashes together all those energies, spreading them out, so it emits white light (that layer of the Sun is called the photosphere). Above that layer, where the gas is thinner (in a layer called the chromosphere), the hydrogen does emit light at specific colors. One of these, Hα, is in the red part of the spectrum, and in fact hot, thin hydrogen emits very strongly in Hα.

Triumph 31

Saturday was my birthday, which capped off a week of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I thought ‘shingles’ sounded like some weird hilarious skin condition that made you look like a lizard or perhaps the roof of a country home. I am pretty doped up on painkillers at the moment but I believe it is fair to say I was off base there.


Saturday was my birthday! I received very nearly a hundred birthday greetings and well-wishes, which I am totally floored by. Thank you all so much.

Audra got me a present! It is a toothbrush!

Let me tell you about this toothbrush!


Do not mock this toothbrush, it is SERIOUS BUSINESS! Witness this FLOSS-ACTION HEAD!

IT MEANS BUSINESS. Does YOUR toothbrush come with this much stuff?

I DON’T THINK SO! Does YOUR toothbrush have a base station that wirelessly monitors your use of the oscillating-rotating technology-enhanced brush using the 2.4 GHz ISM band?

IT IS UNLIKELY! Does YOUR toothbrush include a separate ProWhite polishing brushhead and a massage mode for optimum gum health?

If it does, you are the proud owner of a ORAL-B TRIUMPH PROFESSIONAL CARE 9900 and I would like to meet with you regularly to discuss how much better our toothbrushes are than everyone elses! Do you remember life before the ORAL-B TRIUMPH PROFESSIONAL CARE 9900? I hardly do. Can you imagine, MANUALLY moving the bristles around on the end of a stick like some kind of barbarian?

Neither can I.

So, thank you, Audra, for this amazing birthday gift! Thank you for elevating me over all of those people I once considered ‘friends’ to the lofty position I now occupy, which I do not think is hyperbolic to describe as ‘godlike’.

Yesterday’s radical is today’s conservative.

On norms:

“This is Chauncy Morlan, and around 100 years ago his obesity was so shocking that people would pay money to see him as he toured the country as a circus “fat man”. I find the unremarkableness of his size to be a telling sign of how we’ve pushed the limits of obesity in the past 100 years.”

(Related, via MeFi: Weighing 607 pounds, Bruce Snowdon was a sideshow fat man from 1977 to 2003, billed as “Harold Huge”. His death on Nov. 9, 2009, at the age of 63 marks the end of a long tradition dating back centuries.)

I thought we weren’t supposed to cross the streams

Congratulations to all the women and men at CERN, where they have been successfully colliding beams at 7 TeV in the Large Hadron Collider for over an hour now.

Particle physicists around the world are looking forward to a potentially rich harvest of new physics as the LHC begins its first long run at an energy three and a half times higher than previously achieved at a particle accelerator.

“It’s a great day to be a particle physicist,” said CERN1 Director General Rolf Heuer. “A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment, but their patience and dedication is starting to pay dividends.”

Shine on you crazy bastards.


Are you a Republican? Libertarian (ha-ha!)? Did you feel emasculated after Obama won? Maybe you feel a little less virile, a little less of a man?

As it turns out, you are!


The present study investigated voters’ testosterone responses to the outcome of the 2008 United States Presidential election. 183 participants provided multiple saliva samples before and after the winner was announced on Election Night. The results show that male Barack Obama voters (winners) had stable post-outcome testosterone levels, whereas testosterone levels dropped in male John McCain and Robert Barr voters (losers).

Wired has an oversimplified assessment of the study’s results, but the findings are clear:

Male voters exhibit biological responses to the realignment of a country’s dominance hierarchy as if they participated in an interpersonal dominance contest. […] Moreover, since the dominance hierarchy shift following a presidential election is stable for 4 years, the stress of having one’s political party lose control of executive policy decisions could plausibly lead to continued testosterone suppression in males.

Badass of the Month (First in a series)

On this first day of the Octomonth (birthstone: opal; flower: calendula), I would like to introduce you to Hedy Lamarr, the first (of many) BADASS OF THE MONTH(s):

Hedy Smoking

“Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy was a successful actress as a young teenager, but her big breaththrough came in the controversial Bohemian (as in, from Bohemia) film, Ecstasy. It was 1933, and people were excited and outraged about a skinny dipping scene; the most outstanding thing about this movie, however, is that it was the first studio film to have a sex scene in it — and the first to depict a female orgasm.

The movie is special not just for its prurient content (and it should be said, the camera never leaves the actors’ faces when things get heavy), but for being an powerful study of a young woman’s sexual empowerment. It was released a year before the Hays Code crackdown began, and so there’s no moral play at work. No virgin/whore complex to feed, no pretense that women live identically sexless lives, who only acquiesce to their husbands after shopping trips (while thinking about their kitchen duties the entire time).


After Ecstasy’s release, Hedy married an controlling Austro-fascist arms manufacturer thirty years her senior who forbade her from making movies. He would take her with him to his business meetings (where military technology and highly technical problems were debated), and force her to entertain at his parties (which Mussolini often attended).

In 1937, after having enough of his crap (and after being forced by her husband to sleep with Hitler to get an arms contract), Hedy dressed up for a ‘party’, drugged her husband, and left Austria (with all of her magnificently expensive jewelry).

Over the next 10 years she made close to twenty films, had two children, and developed a backstage reputation as a voracious bisexual (second only to her sometimes-lover, Marlon Brando). In her time, she was reportedly involved with Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Carson, Howard Huges, Errol Flynn, JFK, and even Charlie Chaplin.

“I don’t think that anyone would call me a lesbian, it’s just that I seem to be the type that other women get queer ideas about.”

More importantly, however, she also did this.

U.S. Patent #2292387

U.S. Patent #2292387

That is the design drawing for her 1942 invention of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum communication, upon which all WiFi, CDMA cell networks, and countless other technologies rely. It went like this: Radio controlled torpedoes are more accurate than ‘dumb’ torpedoes, but it’s easy to jam the frequency that the torpedo control channel is on. By rapidly changing the frequency that the control channel was transmitted on, you prevent the adversary from jamming your signals.

Working with experimental composer George Anthiel (who once composed a symphony that required 16 player pianos), she placed a modified piano roll in the torpedo and the controller plane, allowing them to switch frequencies in sync with each other. Unfortunately, it was nearly two decades later before her the importance and potential of her invention was realized. The Navy of the time did not take seriously a device invented by a woman that ran on musical equipment, and suggested to Hedy that she could best support the war effort elsewhere. She did, once raising $7,000,000 in a single event where she sold kisses for fifty grand each. (When honored by the EFF in 1997 for her contribution of spread spectrum technology, she was quoted as saying “It’s about time.”)

Her later years were noteworthy for her lavish parties, five husbands, two shoplifting arrests, a star on Hollywood’s walk of fame, and a Boeing recruitment ad featuring her as a woman of science, with no mention of her film career.

So, here’s to you, Hedy Lamarr. You kicked ass, you took names, you did what you wanted, who you wanted, when you wanted, and you changed the world.

Hedy Lamarr

“Jack Kennedy always said to me, Hedy, get involved. That’s the secret of life. Try everything. Join everything. Meet everybody. “

Proposed topic for tonight’s dinner

Norman Borlaug, “the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself,” has died at age 95. On the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, Borlaug “developed a “miracle wheat” that tripled grain output and moved the country to self-sufficiency. Dr. Borlaug then took his high-yield, disease-resistant wheat to Pakistan and India, averting the mass famine and starvation that had been widely predicted.

Yet, despite his achievement, and being one of only five people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, Borlaug was hardly a household name: a 1997 Atlantic profile described him as the “forgotten benefactor of humanity.

(Post by NotMyselfRightNow, via MeFi.)

pew pew pew

You know what’s really fucking awesome? LASERS.

You know what’s even awesomer? NUCLEAR FUCKING FUSION.

Do you know what happens when you put the two of them together? MOTHERFUCKING LASER-BASED INTERNAL CONFINEMENT FUSION, that’s what!

That’s where you take 192 big fucking lasers and put them in a room like this:

NIF Target Chamber

…and then point them all at this:

Fusion Microcapsule

…and you make it so they all hit that little fucking ball at the EXACT SAME FUCKING TIME and heat the thing up to 100,000,000 ˚C.

THAT is what fucking happens.

The National Ignition Facility in California broke the one-megajoule barrier a few weeks ago, and appear to be well on the way to the first energy-positive fusion lab ever.

Godspeed, you crazy bastards.

King Prong

A National Geographic expedition to a tiny South Pacific island has discovered scores of new species, including over 600 types of crabs.

Feather Star Crab

The distinctive hexagonal shell, long legs, and claws of this delicate-looking feather star crab help it blend in with its host, the crinoid or feather star.

The crab dwells in the center of the feather star, where it grabs food particles from its filter-feeding host’s arms.

Over 150 scientists from 20 countries participated in the survey of Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific, scouring caves, mountains, reefs, shallows, and forests collecting species. Out of over 10,000 species collected, the researchers are predicting that as many as 2000 may be previously unknown to the scientific community.

More photos and info:  Crabs! Not-crabs!

(via Zooillogix)

Spicules: Jets on the Sun

From Space Photos:

Imagine a pipe as wide as a state and as long as half the Earth. Now imagine that this pipe is filled with hot gas moving 50,000 kilometers per hour. Further imagine that this pipe is not made of metal but a transparent magnetic field. You are envisioning just one of thousands of young spicules on the active Sun. Pictured above is perhaps the highest resolution image yet of these enigmatic solar flux tubes. Spicules dot the above frame of solar active region 10380 that crossed the Sun in 2004 June, but are particularly evident as a carpet of dark tubes on the right. Time-sequenced images have recently shown that spicules last about five minutes, starting out as tall tubes of rapidly rising gas but eventually fading as the gas peaks and falls back down to the Sun. These images also indicate that the ultimate cause of spicules is sound-like waves that flow over the Sun’s surface but leak into the Sun’s atmosphere.