Leonardo da Vinci’s Inventions Come to Life as Museum-Quality, Workable Models: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Chariot, Perpetual Motion Machine & More

Perpetual motion is impossible. Even if we don't know much about physics, we all know that to be true — or at least we've heard it from credible enough sources that we might as well believe it. More accurately, we might say that nobody has yet figured out how to make a machine that keeps on going and going and going by itself, without any external energy source. But it hasn't been for lack of trying, and the effort has been on the part of not just crackpots but some of the most impressive minds in human history. Take charter member of that group Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance designer of bridges, musical instruments, war machines, and much else beside, whose fascination with the subject also had him imagining the occasional perpetual motion machine.

Our unflagging fascination with Leonardo has fueled the efforts of 21st-century enthusiasts to build his inventions for themselves, even those inventions that previously existed only in his notebooks. In the video above you can see a series of such Leonardo-imagined devices made real in functional model form.




Some of them, like the flywheel, odometer, vertical ball-bearing, and double-decker bridge, have become so common in other forms that we no longer even stop to consider their ingeniousness. Others, like the invader-repelling castle wall defense mechanism and something called a "scythed chariot" — a nasty-looking yet characteristically graceful piece of work — remind of us that, at least in most of the world, we live in less warlike times than Leonardo did.

The video comes from Valeriy Ivanov, who on Youtube specializes in building and demonstrating "working models of perpetual motion machines" as well as "Da Vinci inventions" and "marble machines." (Leonardo's odometer, featured in the video, makes a particularly impressive use of marbles.) "My models of perpetual motion machines are of motorized versions that were built to illustrate how they were supposed to work in the minds of inventors," writes Ivanov. We see not only the mechanics Leonardo and other hopeful inventors must have imagined, but the mesmerizing elegance of Leonardo's designs in particular, such as the video's overbalanced wheel. On a notebook page from 1494, Leonardo told the seekers of perpetual motion to "go and take your place with the alchemists." But now, with the aid of technology unimagined in Leonardo's time — even by Leonardo himself — we can see just how compelling that vision must have been.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download Beautiful Free Posters Celebrating the Achievements of Living Female STEM Leaders

Remember the posters that decorated your childhood or teenaged bedroom?

Of course you do.

Whether aspirational or inspirational, these images are amazingly potent.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit what hung over my bed, especially in light of a certain CGI adaptation…

No such worries with a set of eight free downloadable posters honoring eight female trailblazers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

These should prove evergreen.


Commissioned by Nevertheless, a podcast that celebrates women whose advancements in STEM fields have shaped—and continue to shape—education and learning, each poster is accompanied with a brief biographical sketch of the subject.

Nevertheless has taken care that the featured achievers are drawn from a wide cultural and racial pool.

No shame if you’re unfamiliar with some of these extraordinary women. Their names may not possess the same degree of household recognition as Marie Curie, but they will once they’re hanging over your daughter’s (or son’s) bed.

It’s worth noting that with the exception of the undersung mother of DNA Helix Rosalind Franklin, these are living role models. They are:

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison

Robotics pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal

Mathematician Gladys West

Tech innovator Juliana Rotich

Pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou

Biopharmacist and women rights advocate Maria da Penha

Biotechnologist Dr. Hayat Sindi

Kudos, too, to Nevertheless for including biographies of the eight female illustrators charged with bringing the STEM luminaries to aesthetically cohesive graphic life: Lidia Tomashevskaya,Thandiwe TshabalalaCamila RosaXu HuiKarina PerezJoana NevesGeneva B, and Juliette Brocal

Listen to Nevertheless’ episode on STEM Role Models here.

Download Nevertheless’ free posters in English here. You can also download zipped folders containing all eight posters translated into Brazilian PortugueseFrenchFrench CanadianGermanItalianSpanish, and Simplified Chinese.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lecture:” An Animated Retelling

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is “famous in a number of dimensions,” says science and math explainer Grant Sanderson of the YouTube channel 3blue1brown in the video above. “To scientists, he’s a giant of 20th century physics… to the public, he’s a refreshing contradiction to the stereotypes about physicists: a safe-cracking, bongo-playing, mildly philandering non-conformist.” Feynman is also famous, or infamous, for his role in the Manhattan Project and the building of the first atomic bomb, after which the FBI kept tabs on him to make sure he wouldn't, like his colleague Klaus Fuchs, turn over nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

He may have led an exceptionally eventful life for an academic scientist, but to his students, he was first and foremost “an exceptionally skillful teacher… for his uncanny ability to make complicated topics feel natural and approachable.” Feynman’s teaching has since influenced millions of readers of his wildly popular memoirs and his lecture series, recorded at Caltech and published in three volumes in the early 1960s. (Also see his famous course taught at Cornell.) For decades, Feynman fans could list offhand several examples of the physicist’s acumen for explaining complex ideas in simple, but not simplistic, terms.




But it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the public had access to one of the finest of his Caltech lectures. Discovered in the 1990s and first published in 1996, the “lost lecture”—titled “The Motion of the Planets Around the Sun”—“uses nothing more than advanced high school geometry to explain why the planets orbit the sun elliptically rather than in perfect circles," as the Amazon description summarizes. You can purchase a copy for yourself, or hear it Feynman deliver for free just below.

Feynman gave the talk as the guest speaker in a 1964 freshman physics class. He addresses them, he says, “just for the fun of it"; none of the material would be on the test. Nevertheless, he ended up hosting an informal 20-minute Q&A afterwards. Given his audience, Feynman assumes only the most basic prior knowledge of the subject: an explanation for why the planets make elliptical orbit around the sun. “It ultimately has to do with the inverse square law,” says Sanderson, “but why?”

Part of the problem with the lecture, as its discoverers David and Judith Goodstein—husband and wife physicist and archivist at Caltech—found, involves Feynman’s extensive reference to figures he draws on the blackboard. It took some time for the two to dig these diagrams up in a set of class notes. In Sanderson’s video at the top, we get something perhaps even better: animated physical representations of the mathematics that determine planetary motion. We need not know this math in depth to grasp what Feynman calls his “elementary” explanation.

“Elementary” in this case, despite common usage, does not mean “easy,” Feynman says. It means “that very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.” That last part is a typical bit of humor. Even those of who haven’t pursued math or physics much beyond the high school level can learn the basic outlines of planetary motion in Feynman’s witty lecture, supplemented by the video visual aids Sanderson offers at the top.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Phenomena of Physics Illustrated with Psychedelic Art in an Influential 19th-Century Textbook

The science of optics and the fine art of science illustration arose together in Europe, from the early black-and-white color wheel drawn by Isaac Newton in 1704 to the brilliantly hand-colored charts and diagrams of Goethe in 1810. Goethe’s illustrations are more renowned than Newton’s, but both inspired a considerable number of scientific artists in the 19th century. It would take a science writer, the French journalist and mathematician Amédée Guillemin, to fully grasp the potential of illustration as a means of conveying the mind-bending properties of light and color to the general public.

Guillemin published the hugely popular textbook Les phénomènes de la physique in 1868, eventually expanding it into a five-volume physics encyclopedia. (View and download a scanned copy at the Wellcome Collection.) He realized that in order to make abstract theories “comprehensible” to lay readers, Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, “he had to make their elegant abstract mathematics tangible and captivating for the eye. He had to make physics beautiful.” Guillemin commissioned artists to make 31 colored lithographs, 80 black-and-white plates, and 2,012 illustrated diagrams of the physical phenomena he described.

The most “psychedelic-looking illustrations,” notes the Public Domain Review, are by Parisian intaglio printer and engraver René Henri Digeon and “based on images made by the physicist J. Silbermann showing how light waves look when they pass through various objects, ranging from a bird’s feather to crystals mounted and turned in tourmaline tongs.”




Digeon also illustrated the “spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric,” above, and created a color wheel, further down, based on a classification system of French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul.

Many of Digeon’s images “were used to explain the phenomenon of birefringence, or double refraction,” the Public Domain Review writes (hence the double rainbow). In addition to his striking plates, this section of the book also includes the image of the soap bubble above, by artist M. Rapine, based on a painting by Alexandre-Blaise Desgoffe.

[The artists’] subjects were not chosen haphazardly. Newton was famously interested in the iridescence of soap bubbles. His observations of their refractive capacities helped him develop the undulatory theory of light. But he was no stranger to feathers either. In the Opticks (1704), he noted with wonder that, “by looking on the Sun through a Feather or black Ribband held close to the Eye, several Rain-bows will appear.”

In turn, Guillemin’s lavishly illustrated encyclopedia continues to influence scientific illustrations of light and color spectra. “In order thus to place itself in communion with Nature,” he wrote, “our intelligence draws from two springs, both bright and pure, and equally fruitful—Art and Science.” See more art from the book at Brain Pickings and the Public Domain Review.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Paradox Explained in Animation

Many of us have heard of Stephen Hawking but know him only as a symbol of a powerful mind dedicated for a lifetime to the thorniest problems in astrophysics. Even more of us have heard of black holes but know of them only as those dangerous things in sci-fi movies that suck in spaceships. But if we gain an understanding of Hawking's work on black holes, however basic, we gain a much clearer view of both entities and what they mean to the human endeavor of grasping the workings of reality. What it all has to do with "one of the biggest paradoxes in the universe," and why that paradox "threatens to unravel modern science," provide the subject matter for the animated TED-Ed lesson above.

In order to explain what's called the "Black Hole Information Paradox," astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci must first explain "information," which in this usage constitutes every part of the reality in which we live. "Typically, the information we talk about is visible to the naked eye," he says. "This kind of information tells us that an apple is red, round, and shiny." But what physicists care about is "quantum information," which "refers to the quantum properties of all the particles that make up that apple, such as their position, velocity and spin." The particles that make up every object of the universe have "unique quantum properties," and the laws of physics as currently understood hold that "the total amount of quantum information in the universe must be conserved."




Smash the apple into sauce, in other words, and you don't create or destroy any quantum information, you just move it around. But in the parts of spacetime with gravity so strong that nothing can escape them, better known as black holes, that particular law of physics may not apply. "When an apple enters a black hole, it seems as though it leaves the universe, and all its quantum information becomes irretrievably lost," says Pacucci. "However, this doesn’t immediately break the laws of physics. The information is out of sight, but it might still exist within the black hole’s mysterious void."

Then we have Hawking Radiation, the eponymous genius' contribution to the study of black holes, which shows that "black holes are gradually evaporating," losing mass over "incredibly long periods of time" in such a way that suggests that "a black hole and all the quantum information it contains could be completely erased" in the process. What might go into the black hole as an apple's information doesn't come out looking like an apple's information. Quantum information seems to be destroyed by black holes, yet everything else about quantum information tells us it can't be destroyed: like any paradox, or contradiction between two known or probable truths, "the destruction of information would force us to rewrite some of our most fundamental scientific paradigms."

But for a scientist in the Hawking mold, this difficulty just makes the chase for knowledge more interesting. Pacucci cites a few hypotheses: that "information actually is encoded in the escaping radiation, in some way we can’t yet understand," that "the paradox is just a misunderstanding of how general relativity and quantum field theory interact, that "a solution to this and many other paradoxes will come naturally with a 'unified theory of everything,'" and most boldly that, because "the 2D surface of an event horizon" — the inescapable edge of a black hole — "can store quantum information," the boundary of the observable universe "is also a 2D surface encoded with information about real, 3D objects," implying that "reality as we know it is just a holographic projection of that information." Big if true, as they say, but as Hawking seems to have known, the truth about our reality is surely bigger than any of us can yet imagine.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

I sometimes wonder: why do people post amateur repair videos, made with smartphones in kitchens and garages, with no obvious commercial value and, often, a level of expertise just minimally above that of their viewers? Then I remember Richard Feynman’s practical advice for how to learn something new—prepare to teach it to somebody else.

The extra accountability of making a public record might provide added motivation, though not nearly to the degree of making teaching one's profession. Nobel-winning physicist Feynman spent the first half of his academic career working on the Manhattan Project, dodging J. Edgar Hoover's FBI at the beginning of the Cold War, and making major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.




But he has become as well-known for his teaching as for his historic scientific role, thanks to the enormously popular series of physics lectures he developed at Caltech; his funny, accessible, best-selling books of essays and memoirs; and his willingness to be an avuncular public face for science, with a knack for explaining things in terms anyone can grasp.

Feynman revealed that he himself learned through what he called a "notebook technique," an exercise conducted primarily on paper. Yet the method came out of his pedagogy, essentially a means of preparing lecture notes for an audience who know about as much about the subject as you did when you started studying it. In order to explain it to another, you must both understand the subject yourself, and understand what it's like not to understand it.

Learn Feynman’s method for learning in the short animated video above. You do not actually need to teach, only pretend as if you're going to—though preparing for an actual audience will keep you on your toes. In brief, the video summarizes Feynman’s method in a three-step process:

  1. Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
  2. Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.

Get ready to start your YouTube channel with homemade language lessons, restoration projects, and/or cooking videos. You may not—nor should you, perhaps—become an online authority, but according to Feyman, who learned more in his lifetime than most of us could in two, you’ll come away greatly enriched in other ways.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online

Photo by ESO/G. Huedepohl, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen couldn't possibly have been Queen without Freddie Mercury, nor could it have been Queen without Brian May. Thanks not least to the recent biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, the band's already larger-than-life lead singer has become even larger still. But its guitarist, despite the film's surface treatment of his character, is in his own way an equally implausible figure. Not only did he show musical promise early, forming his first group while still at school, he also got his A Levels in physics, mathematics, and applied mathematics, going on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Physics with honors at Imperial College London.

Naturally, May then went for his PhD, continuing at Imperial College where he studied the velocity of, and light reflected by, interplanetary dust in the Solar System. He began the program in 1970, but "in 1974, when Queen was but a princess in its infancy, May chose to abandon his doctorate studies to focus on the band in their quest to conquer the world." So wrote The Telegraph's Felix Lowe in 2007, the year the by-then 60-year-old (and long world-famous) rocker finally handed in his thesis. "The 48,000-word tome, Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, which sounds suspiciously like a Spinal Tap LP, was stored in the loft of his home in Surrey." You can read it online here.




According to its abstract, May's thesis "documents the building of a pressure-scanned Fabry-Perot Spectrometer, equipped with a photomultiplier and pulse-counting electronics, and its deployment at the Observatorio del Teide at Izaña in Tenerife, at an altitude of 7,700 feet (2567 m), for the purpose of recording high-resolution spectra of the Zodiacal Light." Space.com describes the Zodiacial Light as "a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the western sky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise," one that has long tricked casual observers into "seeing it as the first sign of morning twilight." Astronomers now recognize it as "reflected sunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near the sun."

In his abstract, May also notes the unusually long period of study as 1970-2007, made possible in part by the fact that little other research had been done in this particular subject area during Queen's reign on the charts and thereafter. Still, he had catching up to do, including observational work in Tenerife (as much of a hardship posting as that isn't). Since being awarded his doctorate, May's scientific activities have continued, as have his musical ones and other pursuits besides, such as animal-rights activism and stereography. (Sometimes these intersect: the 2017 photobook Queen in 3-D, for example, uses a VR viewing device of May's own design.) The next time you meet a youngster dithering over whether to go into astrophysics or found one of the most successful rock bands of all time, point them to May's example and let them know doing both isn't without precedent.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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