Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Leet seismograph, named after L. Don Leet

The Leet seismograph is named after its developer, the geoscientist Dr. L. Don Leet, who has been chairman of the Division of Geological Sciences at Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Seismographic Station [1] and was a co-founder of the Vibration Engineering Company, where he developed the first three-component portable seismograph in the 1940s [2,3].

In his earthquake-seismology book, which Don Leet wrote together with his wife Florence [1], he describes how he was lured down from Boston to New Mexico in 1945 to record seismic waves from explosion tests. It turned out that those testing experiments involved nothing less than atomic bomb explosions: “Among the seismographs recording this event were four portable Leet seismographs, one operating by remote control five miles from the bomb. The largest motion registered on it was produced by a type of surface earth wave (the ‘hydrodynamic’) that had not previously been recognized. Another type of earth wave also was recorded on this same record. Its vibration had a particle motion (‘coupled’) that I had first recognized and reported in 1939, when it had been recorded from dynamite blasts. These two surface waves have since been identified on records from dynamite blasts and from nuclear blasts, but not on records from earthquakes.”

When the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union began to get shaky, recording of underground earth waves became a matter of international security and headline news and speculations about seismic events spread around the globe almost as fast as their recordable waves.

Keywords: history of seismology, atomic bombs, nuclear explosion, artificial earthquakes

[1] L. Don and Florence Leet: EarthquakeDiscoveries in Seismology. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 750 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. , 10017, USA, 1964; pages 178 and 181.
[2] GeoSonics Vibra-Tech: History [].
[3] History of Explosives and Blasting, see entry for 1950: first portable 3 component monitor developed, the Leet Seismograph weighs 65 lbs [].

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is your surname on the map of the United States?

This year's February issue of National Geographic features a map of the United States with surnames covering territory from Hawaii to Maine and Alaska to Florida. This namescape is supposed to give the viewer an idea of the distribution of common last names, reflecting North America's immigration history. The surnames have different colors indicating their language-based origin from countries in Europe and Asia.

Overall, there is lot of blue—from light to dark for England, Wales and Scotland. Green names in the Boston area belong to Irish folks. French names are scattered along the Canadian border in Maine and around New Orleans. Spanish names dominate in the southern parts of California and Florida. Scandinavian and German names are found frequently west of Lake Michigan. Interestingly, the surname Miller is sometimes displayed in the “German color.” German newcomers apparently anglicized—or should we say americanized—their surname from Müller to Miller.

You'll look in vain for names that would specifically indicate Native American, African American and Jewish origin! Well, Native Americans are not (recent) immigrants; but don't they have names? During the time of slavery, black people often took (or got?) the name of their owner and today's descendants, therefore, have often British-sounding names. The Jewish population, like many other ethnic groups, are concentrated in particular parts of the country, which do not show up in sufficient detail. Little Italy neighborhoods and Basque Shepherd communities are too small for surname presence on the grand scale. Imagine, printing a similar map for New York or Los Angeles: the printer would probably run out of colors—and even letters.

Keywords: immigration, naturalization, integration, population dynamics, ethnic diversity, name persistence, name change

What's in a Surname? National Geographic February 2011 [].

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Acronym in chemistry and business: BASF for Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik

BASF is a German-language acronym for Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik, a chemical company with its headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The word Fabrik means factory. The inner phrase Anilin und Soda refers to aniline and sodium carbonate, which were the critical start-up products in the 1860s: Aniline was manufactured in a plant in Mannheim and sodium carbonate at a soda and mineral acid factory at Ludwigshafen on the other bank of the Rhine [1]. The adjective Badische specifies the location: Baden, which was a Grand Duchy then, is today part of the twin-state Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. Mannheim is—after Stuttgart— the second largest city of this state. Ludwighafen belongs to the state of Rhineland-Palatine. The company, however, is not confined to two German states: it is present worldwide and even became the largest chemical company through major acquisitions. The BASF was chosen as C&EN's 2010 company of the year [2].

Keynotes: chemical history, business strategies, recovery from recession

[1] Fred Aftalion: A History of the International Chemical Industry. Translated from the original French edition by Otto Theodor Bentley. University pf Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1991; page 41. (Note that this reference confuses the rivers Main and Rhine.)
[2] Alexander H. Tullo and C&EN Northeast News Bureau: Company Of The Year. Chemical & Engineering News January 3, 2011, 89 (1), page 15. Background: BASF: The Chemical Company?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The bigram “ionic liquid” and related terms in the Ngram Viewer

The Google Books Ngram Viewer provides interesting options to analyze the frequency of use of words and phrases (n-grams) over time—relative, as a percentage of all other n-grams occurring in a corpus of books published in a selected language. By simultaneously generating time-percentage graphs for a set of different terms, one can easily compare their “importance” relative to each other and establish their culturomics.

Let's see how it works for chemistry. I choose the term “ionic liquid” to check if the graph reflects the recent growth in the design and application of ionic liquids. The graph clearly indicates a rise from almost zero up to 0.00001% between 1998 and 2008. This growth trend parallels the one found in an analysis of journal publications [1]. Interestingly, the synonymous term “liquid salt,” although used before the appearance of the term “ionic liquid”, continues on after 1998 at the same low percentage as before 1998. The 4-grams “room temperature ionic liquid” and “task specific ionic liquid” are too specific and do not produce a graph. However, their acronyms “RTIL” and “TSIL” do, following the trend of the parent term “ionic liquid”, while the unigram “RTIL” has a much higher frequency than “TSIL”.

For a final “ionoculturomics” diagram, I entered the unigrams “cation”, “anion” and “zwitterion”. As expected, the percentage for the term “zwitterion” stays near zero over the whole time range from 1900 to 2008. The shapes of the “cation” and “anion” graph are very similar, showing a maximum around 1980 and declining thereafter. Consistently over time, the term “cation” is used almost twice as often as the term “anion”. I don't have an explanation for that.

Figure 1: “The rise in publications concerning ionic liquids as a function of time, as determined using SciFinder” in the Preface of the book entitled “ Ionic Liquids in Synthesis,” edited by P. Wasserscheid and T. Welton. Wiley-VCH Verlag, Weinheim, Germany, 2003.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Culturomics, a portmanteau blending the words “culture” and “genomics”

The noun culturomics is a portmanteau derived from the words culture and genomics. While in genomics the sequences of DNA base pairs are studied, in culturomics the changes in meaning and frequencies of word sequences (n-grams) in written documents over time are the subjects of curiosity. John Bohannon describes how Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden came up with the term culturomics [1]: “In a nod to data-intensive genomics, Michel and Lieberman Aiden call this nascent field ‘culturomics’.”

This nascent field has already been applied to investigate cultural trends and linguistic phenomena in a large corpus of digitized English-language texts published between 1800 and 2000 [2,3]. The culture of culturomics can be followed via tweets at the Cultural Observatory [4]. And if you want to track the evolution of your favorite phrase or a strange word, you are invited to use the Ngram Viewer [5]. But there is no absolute warranty that your favorite book has been scanned, digitized and n-gramatized!

References and n-gram exploration
[1] John Bohannon: Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies. Science 17. December 2010, 330, page 1600. DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6011.1600.
[2] J.-B. Michel, Y. K. Shen, A. P. Aiden, A. Veres, M. K. Gray, The Google Books Team, J. P. Pickett, D. Hoiberg, D. Clancy, P. Norvig, J. Orwant, J. Orwant, S. Pinker, M. A. Nowak and E. Lieberman Aiden: Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Milions of Digitized Books. Science Published Online 16. December 2010. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.
[3] Culturomics:
[4] @culturomics:
[5] Google labs Books Ngram Viewer:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gaia hypothesis named after the Greek goddess of Earth

The Gaia hypothesis was named by the British scientist James Lovelock after the Greek goddess of Earth. Lovelock followed a suggestion of novelist William Golding to name his hypothesis that explains life through its initiating capacity rather than its adapting behavior [1]: “Lovelock's insight stood that notion [of simple adaption] on its head, giving to life the function, exercised over billions of years, of establishing and maintaining conditions conclusive to its own welfare.”

Synonymous terms such as Gaia theory,
Gaia principle, Gaia metaphor or Gaian paradigm of Earth are in common use [2]. Gaian thinking embraces complex systems as a whole before attending to specific domains. Self-regulating systems play a key role in gaian understanding of nature. Mutual evolution of the living and non-living world and processes of self-regulation fight tendencies toward entropy and create order out of chaos. After all, Gaia was born from Chaos, according to Greek mythology [3].

The Gaia principle includes interdisciplinary teaching and working, complementing science with philosophy, ethics and perspectives in discussing and solving global problems.


[1] David E. Moody:
Gaia Comes of Age. Natural History December 2010/ January 2011, 119(3), 40-42.
The Gaia TheoryModel and Metaphor for the 21st Century [].
[3] Ron Leadbetter: Gaia [].

Friday, January 14, 2011

Seamounts, also named guyots after Swiss-American geologist Arnold Henry Guyot

Arnold Henry Guyot (1807-1884) was a Swiss-American scientist [1,2]. He studied in Switzerland and Germany. Influenced by glaciologist Louis Agassiz, Guyot investigated Swiss glaciers. He was a professor of geography in Neuchâtel in Switzerland and later became the first professor for geography at Princeton University in the United States. He published text books in the fields of natural history and geography. His name is now mostly associated with seamounts (extinct volcanoes) found in deep oceans and rising up to a few hundred feet below the sea surface, featuring a smooth platform top. Don and Florence Leet put it this way [3]:
They [the truncated volcanoes] were originally called “tablemounts” or “seamounts,” but the most widely used name now is “guyot,” after Arnold Guyot, a Swiss-American geologist of the mid-19th century. Guyots, like submarine canyons, raise the fascinating question of whether sea level has undergone fluctuations of a mile or more.
Notice that this was written during the years when the theory of plate tectonics and seafloor spreading slowly made its transition from speculation to proof gathering.

[1] James D. Dana: Memoir of Arnold Guyot. 1807-1884.[].
[2] Autorenkollektiv: Lexikon der Naturwissenschaftler. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg•Berlin, 2000.
[3] L. Don and Florence Leet:
EarthquakeDiscoveries in Seismology. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 750 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. , 10017, USA, 1964; page 124.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mohole, short for Mohorovičić discontinuity drilling hole

The word Moho stands for the phrase Mohorovičić discontinuity, the boundary between the crust and the mantle inside planet earth. Mohole is short for Moho hole, more precisely for a drilling hole all the way down through earth's crust to or beyond the Moho. Don and Florence Leet described the motivation for drilling that deep and pierce the Moho [1]:
Information on the Moho has been gathered in many parts of the world now. Lava for many if not all our volcanoes may be generated in the region near the Moho. The Moho probably holds the answers to several very important questions about our planet, and probably some we don't even know enough to ask yet. So great is our curiosity about it that there is actually a project for drilling a Mohole down to it for a firsthand sample of what is there.
Project Mohole was suggested in 1957 by Walter Munk, a member of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Earth Science Panel [2]. In a sense, this project was the inverse to the space program. Lack of funding, however, prevented its completion. No access to earth's mantle—then. But recent drilling projects are coming close to deliver Moho and mantle rocks [3].

: geophysics, drilling, earth's interior, earth's mantle

[1] L. Don and Florence Leet: EarthquakeDiscoveries in Seismology. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 750 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. , 10017, USA, 1964; pages 83 and 84.
[2] Project Mohole, 1958-1966 [].
[3] R. Monastersky: Drilling shortcut penetrates Earth's mantle [].

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Moho for Mohorovičić discontinuity, named after Yugoslavian/Croatian seismologist A. Mohorovičić

Andrija Mohorovičić was born in 1857 inVolosko, an Istrian village on the Adrian Coast. In 1910 he became a university professor in Zagreb, teaching astronomy and geophysics [1]. By studying the spreading behavior of seismic waves registered during earthquakes, he found a velocity discontinuity for those waves. This discovery lead to the conclusion that a boundary exists inside the earth, which separates the crust from the mantle. The boundary became known as Mohorovičić Discontinuity, or Moho for short.

Here is how L. Don and Florence Leet introduce this discontinuity in my favorite booklet on the early history and science of seismology [2]:

When rocks that transmit earthquake waves at one speed lie on rocks that transmit them at a different speed, the boundary where the rocks meet at is called a “discontinuity.” The boundary discovered by Mohorovicic has been named after him, the Mohorovicic discontinuity.” Since this is quite a mouthful, it is usually referred to simply as the Moho.” The layer above the Moho is called the earth's crust” and the layer below it the earth's mantle.”

Indeed, Mohorovičić is difficult to say, spell and mark up. Moho is a much easier term. Moho also sounds somewhat Hawaiian, underlining its wave and quake association.

: earthquakes, seismology, boundaries within earth, Croatia

References and recommended reading
Andrija MohorovičićProminent Istrians []
[2] L. Don and Florence Leet:
EarthquakeDiscoveries in Seismology. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 750 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. , 10017, USA, 1964; page 83.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The term reverberation explained

The noun reverberation refers to the repetition of sound resulting from reflections of it waves. The phenomenom of reverberation is difficult to explain in terms of physics. My Oxford Dictionary of Physics (2003 edition) only has an entry for “reverberation time”:
The time taken for the energy density of a sound to fall to the threshold of audibility from a value 106 times as great; i.e, a fall of 60 decibels. It is an important characteristic of an auditorium. The optimum value is proportional to the linear dimension of the auditorium.
If something starts reverberating in your head now, you might prefer the following explanation of reverberation by Don and Florence Leet, which I really like since it illustrates the concept in a few vivid sentences:
If sound hits a mountain, wall, or other solid surface some of it bounces back. This bouncing off is called “reflection” or “echoing.” And when it takes place back and forth and up and down in a room, we call it “reverberation.” The great difference between the sound of things in open air and in a room or auditorium is that in the open, there is no reverberation and inside there is.

Keywords: acoustics, sound waves, reflection

L. Don and Florence Leet: EarthquakeDiscoveries in Seismology. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 750 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. , 10017, USA, 1964; pages 61 and 62.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Acronym and file extension in crystallography: cif for crystallographic information file or framework

CIF stands for crystallographic information file. It was designed as “a general, flexible and easily extensible free-format archive file; it is human and machine readable and can be edited by a simple text editor” [1]. Plain-text files in CIF format provide a standard for the exchange of crystallographic data. A CIF file contains information such as the chemical name and the composition of a crystalline compound or material, unit cell parameters and lattice coordinates, space group assignment and a reference to the original publication of the data.

The acronym CIF also stands for crystallographic information framework, sponsered and defined by the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) as “ a broader system of exchange protocols based on data dictionaries and relational rules expressible in different machine-readable manifestations, including, but not restricted to, Crystallographic Information File and XML” [2].

The CIF format is used by fee-charging enterprise as well as open-access services; for example, the Inorganic Crystal Structure Database (ICSD) and Crystallography Open Database (COD) [3], respectively .

Keywords: crystallography, data exchange standard file format, electronic data transmission, ASCII file

[1] S. R. Hall, F. H. Allen and I. D. Brown: The Crystallographic Information File (CIF): a New Standard Archive File for Crystallography. Acta Cryst. A 1991, 47, pp. 655-685 [].
[2] International Union of Crystallography (IUCr): CIF [].
[3] S. Gražulis et al.: Crystallography Open Database - an open-access collection of crystal structures. J. Appl. Cryst. 2009, 42, pp. 726-729.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The noun “eutaxy” and the adjective “eutactic”

The words eutaxy and eutactic have Greek roots. The noun eutaxy means “good or established order or arrangement” [1].

The two terms are mostly found in the literature of chemistry, geology and crystallography. In an article on ion packing in crystal structures, M. O'Keeffe explains that the terms were suggested (via private communication) by Mrs. M. Hyde [2]. O'Keeffe proposed to call the arrangements of spheres (atoms, ions) in a periodic lattice eutactic, when the spheres are configured in a close-packing geometry, but without being in contact. G. S. Rohrer uses the term eutactic arrangement as a synonym for pseudo-close packed framework [3]. Identification of the packing type and eutactic framework is critical in naming and classifying crystal structures.

Keywords: sphere packing, structural concepts, density and volume of ionic compounds

[1] The Free Dictionary:
[2] M. O'Keeffe:
On the Arrangement of Ions in Crystals. Acta Cryst. A 1977, 33, pp. 924-927. DOI: 10.1107/S056773947700223X.
[3] G. S. Rohrer: Structure and Bonding in Crystalline Materials. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001; page 145.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Acronyms in sustainable chemistry: CCS and CCR for carbon capture and storage and reuse, respectively

The term carbon capture is commonly used in the context of avoiding or reducing the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. The acronym CCS stands for carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and sequestration. The acronym CCR stands for carbon capture and reuse or carbon capture and recycling.

CCS typically refers to the storage of CO2 in geological formations. CCR refers to technologies that include winning, purification and use of CO2. Today, about 110 million tons of this greenhouse gas—less than 0.5% of its worldwide emission—are recycled as raw material for further use as industrial gas or precursor compound in chemical synthesis [1]. Research in the future use of CO2 as a building block in polymer syntheses, for example, has been discussed and initiated [1,2]. Rational design of new catalysts and photocatalytic approaches may result in the implementation of effective CO2-consuming processes. However, sustainability of such processes has to be critically evaluated by accounting for the total energy input and the overall CO2 balance. The fabrication of novel compounds with desired properties can be expected and will result in the fixation of a certain amount of CO2, depending on their lifetime. But this amount is not going to liberate us from the need of finding other means of reducing atmospheric CO2 emission.

[1] A. Bazzanalla, D. Krämer and M. Peters:
CO2 als Rohstoff. Nachrichten aus der Chemie December 2010, 58, 1226-1230.
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201075752.
[2] Vom Problem zum Rohstoff? Interview mit Walter Leitner.
CO2NET: Technologien für Nachhaltigkeit und Klimaschutz.