The maths behind the song Gaussian Rhapsody

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At The Laborastory National Science Week Edition the Gaussian Ensemble are singing a song they wrote called Gaussian Rhapsody. They have kindly provided an explanation to the maths behind their lyrics. We’ll put the lyrics up here after the show.

Gauss was a mathematician and physicist, who described mathematics as “The Queen of the Sciences” and, being the greatest mathematician of all time, he is known to us as “The Prince of Mathematicians”.

Normality & Gaussianity refer to the familiar bell-curve in statistics, which we call the ‘normal’ or ‘Gaussian’ or ‘Laplacian’ distribution. It appears in science all the time, and indeed in the day-to-day world, because of its unique property that if you add up a lot of unrelated variables then the total is approximately Gaussian (this is called the ‘Central Limit Theorem’). Gauss and Laplace made fundamental discoveries in the statistics of the normal distribution.

Woooooah this stuff really blows our minds.

Polygons are 2-dimensional closed shapes with straight edges, like squares, trapezoids and hexagons. A ‘regular polygon’ is one where all the angles are the same and all the edges have the same length.

Fermat polygons refers to ‘constructible polygons’, which are regular polygonals with the number of sides given by a product of Fermat primes and a power of 2. The Gauss-Wantzel theorem says that these polygons can all be constructed with a compass and a straight piece of something (as long as it’s straight).

A heptadecagon is one of these constructible polygons, and Gauss was the first to make one. People had been trying for 2000 years before he finally got it.

Ceres, Piazzi’s rock is a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, and it was the first asteroid to be discovered (probably because it’s the biggest) in 1801 by Piazzi. Gauss managed to predict where it would appear after Piazzi lost track of it when it passed behind the sun—to do this he used Kepler’s elliptical orbits, which was in contradiction to Galileo, who believed that the planetry orbits were circular and not elliptical.

A geodesic is the shortest path between two points on a curved surface.

A Danish geodesic refers to the land survey of Denmark, which Gauss extended to his native Hanover. He undertook the entire enterprise, and spent several years riding around the countryside. It led him to fundamental mathematical insights into geometry and curvature.

Wilhelm, my friend, let’s build a telegraph, refers to Gauss and Wilhelm Weber building one of the world’s first telegraph systems at their university in Goettingen. It extended from the institute of physics to the astronomical observatory, a distance of about 3km.

Gauss’s Law! is one of Carl’s greatest contributions. It tells you that the electric or magnetic flux through any three-dimensional space can be easily calculated by knowing how much charge is inside the space.

Monopoles are the fundamental units of electric or magnetic charge. For example, an electron has a -1 charge, and it is an electric monopole, while a proton has a +1 electric charge and is also a monopole. A magnetic monopole has just a north or south end, not both. Gauss law for magnets says there are no magnetic monopoles—and so far, nobody has found any.

Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Maxwell refers to James Clerk Maxwell who listed the four fundamental laws of electromagnetism that we still use today—and Gauss’s Law accounts for two of them. So devote half your thanks to Gauss whenever you switch on the toaster.


Villains of science: Ted Kaczynski and Henry Murray

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This story is by Dr Carleton Coffrin and was part of the Villains of Science show in 2013. You can hear him tell the story here.

It is a brisk spring evening on May 22, 1942. At this time, the TV is a cutting-edge technology and the world is knee-deep in World War II. But today two Polish-American immigrants are very happy as their second son was born, Theodore Kaczynski. Or Ted, for short.

By todays standards, Ted was a classic geek. One part brilliant academic and one part socially awkward, he could have been a guest star on The Big Bang Theory. With an IQ of 167, he was smart. So smart that he skipped several grades, and completed high school at 15, that’s two to three years ahead of schedule, by American standards.

Being a child prodigy, Ted was *invited* to apply to Harvard. And was of course happy to attend, starting his studies in 1958.

Ted graduated from Harvard University at the age of 20, and subsequently enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in mathematics.

Ted’s work was astounding. Regarding his PhD, Maxwell Reade said, “I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 men in the country understood it or even appreciated it.”

Ted had all the makings of one of America’s academic elite. Childhood prodigy. Brilliant PhD thesis. The works.

So it is no surprise that directly out of graduate school, at the age of 24, he became an assistant professor of mathematics at Berkeley.  At that time, he was the youngest professor ever hired by the university.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out in academia. Just two years into his professorship, Ted resigned, without any explanation.

So what did he do? He did what every 26-year-old does after quitting their job: he went back home to live with his parents. Ted was ahead of his time in so many ways.

After two years of planning (at his parents’ house), he moved to Lincoln, Montana. Just to give you an idea of what this means, Montana is 50% larger than Victoria and has ¼ of the population of Melbourne.  It is the boondocks. In Montana Ted lived a simple life.  He had very little money, lived in a remote cabin he built himself with no electricity or running water (so basically, Ted was a hipster … in 1971).

However, his dream of a simple life was slowly crushed as new housing developments and industry surrounded his hand-made abode. Ted was deeply worried that the industrial revolution had brought about a change in human society that could not be reversed.  He once wrote:

“I don’t think it can be un-done. In part because of the human tendency to take the path of least resistance. People take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system.”

Oh, Ted, only if you knew what the hipster revolution would have to offer!

Over the 70s, 80s, and 90s Ted’s passion for returning to a simpler existence intensified. This ultimately lead to his most high read publication, Industrial society and its future, which is a 35,000 word essay that was published in the New York Times AND the Washington Post on September 19th 1995.

In this manifesto Ted put forward his bold philosophy including statements such as “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” “Eventually it will permanently reduce human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine,” “I think that the only way we will get rid of it, is if it breaks down and collapses …”

At this point, you may be thinking:

  1. Wow, that’s some pretty revolutionary stuff!  Good on you Ted.
  2. Or, isn’t this meant to be science villains night?  This Ted guy sounds great to me.
  3. Or maybe, HOW DID HE MANAGE TO GET a 35,000 word soap-box rant into the New York Times!?!?

Wellllllll … there is a little tid-bit about Ted I have failed to tell you. He is most widely-known by another name: the Unabomber. He acquired this alias by distributing 16 home-made bombs to people randomly in the United States over the course of 17 years. These disturbing acts resulted in three deaths and 23 injuries.

During these 17 years, the FBI set-up a hotline for tips relating to Ted’s case.  The hotline received about a thousand calls a day (that may have had something to do with the $1 million reward).

No matter the sincerity of his goals, what Ted did is deplorable. There is no doubt, Ted is a villain. However, with only a handful of peer reviewed publications to his name, he just doesn’t have the chops to cut it as MY villain of science. For that, I need to make a costume change …

I am now, Henry Murray. The year is 1947, World War II is over and America is indulging in the post-war peace and prosperity. After a wartime stint in the Office of Strategic Services (which is now known as the CIA), I have just returned to Harvard to resume my teaching and research initiatives in a relatively new field, called psychology. Using my World War II government connections, I have become one of the fortunate few to be part of a research project called MK-Ultra. But Shhhhh don’t tell anyone. MK-Ulta is a covert human research operation, experimenting in the behavioural engineering of humans (ya know, mind control). It is even secretly funded through the CIA’s Scientific Intelligence Division.

In retrospect, people may tell you that integrating subjects under the influence of LSD, or using psychological torture in experiments, is “disturbing” or “ethically indefensible”.  But this was essential to our national security. There is a war on.  A cold war.

I will be using the students of my undergraduate class as subjects in my first experiment. (However, this project is so top-secret, I can’t even tell my human test subjects that they are part of the experiment.)

Ok, let me tell you about the experiment:

  1. I will ask the students to make a personal diary, a very personal diary. Everything from their greatest aspirations to their darkest sexual fantasies.
  2. I will tell the students that they will be sharing these diaries with their fellow students and “debating” the topics within.
  3. However, this is just a smoke screen. When they arrive for the debate, I will take them to an interrogation room, ya know an overhead light/one way mirror, the whole thing. And strap them down in a chair with EKG monitoring. We need data, this is science after all.
  4. Then my professional interrogator will use the personal essays to try and anger and humiliate the student.  Meanwhile I will be taping their response from behind the one-way mirror.
  5. I will have the students come back again-and-again, to re-watch themselves being humiliated on the video.
  6. Observe the results.

Over the course of the experiment, one student has been particularly outstanding. We call him, “Lawful”. So honest, so innocent, and only 16. He is my prime subject and the most responsive to the experiment.

Now let me break character and reflect.

The year is 1958, Lawful is a 16 year-old Harvard undergrad. How many could there be? You may have guessed it, this star subject was none-other-than Ted Kazinsky. The same person who later went on to become the Unabomber!

There is no excuse for what Ted did. And we will never know how much Henry Murray’s unethical experiments influenced Ted’s life. But for taking a socially-fragile 16 year-old child-prodigy, and using him as a test subject in a brainwashing psychological-torture experiment … Henry Murray is my science villain.

Thank you.

Re-cap of the 3 June show

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This month’s Laborastory session (the last one to be held at the Ciderhouse-check out our new venue here) included talks on the discoverer of electrolysis, the Bronte Sisters of the Botanical world, and a maverick con artist of sorts.

3x2 Laborastory June 2014

Prasanna Sritharan started off the evening with a talk on eccentric Eadweard Muybridge, the first to photograph a horse in the act of flying (also a pioneer in experiments combining chickens and torpedoes).

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Kate Cranney went next with scientific illustrators Harriet and Helena Scott, the first female members of the Australian Entomological Society (the Australian Museum has an app for that here).

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Dr Neil MacDonald then delivered a graphic (and hilarious) account of early experiments in anaesthesia (pubes and batons were involved).

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Following a short refreshments break Dr Dave Gonsalvez then followed with a Italian anatomy professor Mondino de Liuzzi, a medieval surgeon with the best ever female to male surgery team ratio (a record that unfortunately, remains unchallenged in surgery today).

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Tom Lang concluded the session with the rollicking adventures of Michael Faraday (Tesla was cool but guess what you need to test his theories-a Faraday cage).

Get the whole thing here and we’ll see you at the next session at the Spotted Mallard on Wednesday 9 July 2014.

The story of William Morton, drop-out dentist who discovered pain-free surgery

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This story is by Jen Morris. You can hear her tell the story here.

On the surface William Morton did not look set to live a life of great note. Indeed, to the casual onlooker, he seemed like a downright loser.

Born in 1819, he drifted aimlessly between careers as a clerk, printer and salesman in Boston. Eventually, with a sudden burst of lofty ambition, he entered Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. He dropped out less than two years later. 

But dropping out was of little concern to Morton. Like a true 19th century man of integrity, he decided to just practice dentistry anyway. So he began work in Connecticut, alongside real dentist, Horace Wells. The two shared a brief business partnership, but that venture also failed.

In 1843 Morton married Elizabeth Whitman – niece of a former Congressman and frankly, a woman far out of his league. Her parents objected fervently to Morton’s profession, believing his status not befitting of their daughter. They only agreed to the marriage after he promised to study medicine. True to his word, he began studying at Harvard Medical School in 1844. But true to his form, he dropped out.

While not cut out for actually being a student, Morton revelled in the student lifestyle. He regularly attended student drug parties, where the chemistry types would pass around the latest mind-bending substances for shits and giggles, and the occasional fatality.

It was at one such party that Morton’s former dentistry partner Horace Wells first encountered nitrous oxide – also known as ‘laughing gas’. Wells observed how well it dulled pain. This made a deep impression on him. 

Because Wells, like many surgeons and dentists at the time, was utterly mortified by the extreme pain he had to inflicted on a daily basis. Surgery was an almost incomprehensibly barbaric, brutal and gruesome practice. There was no established concept of anaesthesia. Indeed, the established belief was that pain was necessary to keep patients alive during surgery because it “kept the mind alert and aware”.

Patients were strapped to tables while surgeons hacked at their flesh with primitive tools. Patients would scream in agony, faint, thrash around, and very often, die of shock. The medicos had one thing right – I imagine that if my leg was being amputated without anaesthetic, I would certainly be ‘alert and aware’ of the fact.

Enlivened by the tantalising idea that this brutality need not be, Wells experimented with nitrous oxide on himself and patients. And what a tempting prospect he uncovered. The gas seemed to work. Could nitrous oxide really open the door to pain-free surgery? Wells did not seek a patent for his discovery, for he believed that, in the interests of humanity, pain relief ought to be “as free as air”. 

Wells headed to Harvard Medical School in Boston to tell the elite surgeons about his discovery. In another act of generosity, he invited his former dentistry partner, our friend William Morton, to accompany him and share his triumph. Yes, that’s right, Wells brought a Harvard drop-out back to Harvard, to dazzle its most elite glitterati. Little did he know how his generous offer would haunt his legacy forever.

On that cold winter’s night in 1845, Wells and Morton appeared in an amphitheatre packed with sceptical doctors and medical students – one of whom had a problem with his teeth. He was summoned forward and given a blast of nitrous oxide from a bag. Wells then attempted to extract his painful tooth with a pair of pliers. 

What followed was total chaos. The student made a noise, the crowd interpreted it as a cry of pain, they went into uproar, and showered Morton and Wells in boos, hisses and cries of “humbug, humbug”. The latter was a toxic medical insult. 

Humiliated – Morton and Wells left. Wells, broken by the failure, later became addicted to chloroform and died by suicide. But Morton did not give up. A man of far different ethics, he had dollar signs in his eyes. He could see the commercial potential in being the only dentist (well wannabe, untrained dentist), who could perform his work without inflicting pain.

He turned to another substance doing the rounds at his beloved drug parties – sweet oil of vitriole. Now known as ether.

Morton decided to try applying ether to a body part, to see what would happen. So of course he chose the lowest-risk and most sensible option – by applying it directly to the inside of his mouth. He experienced a promising numbing sensation.

Then he did the next most obvious thing – he used a larger amount to knock out a spaniel. The spaniel lived, and appeared fine. That was enough for Morton.

Soon after, he entered his office, got a handkerchief, applied some ether to it, looked at his watch, then lay back and placed the handkerchief over his face. A few minutes later he woke, totally unable to move. We later wrote “I was terrified that I would die in that position and the world would laugh at my folly”. One can only imagine how it would have looked by the time he was found, the ether on the handkerchief long since dried. William Morton – cause of death – smothered by his own flat handkerchief.

Luckily for Morton, he made a full recovery, and quickly moved on to performing trials on his unsuspecting patients. Although, given that the ether was a success, and they were spared the horrors of anaesthetic-free multiple tooth extractions, one thinks they may have suspected something was amiss. 

At 9:00pm on September 30, 1846, Morton used ether to perform a painless tooth extraction on Eben Frost, a local merchant. This was the trigger for him to risk it all. He wrote to Harvard Medical School, where he had experienced such humiliation, asking for one last chance to demonstrate pain relief.

It was granted. The date was set for just 16 days later – October 16th, 1846. On that Friday the formidable domed surgical theatre was packed with medical folk, many expecting, and indeed, hoping, that this uppity non-dentist dentist would fail again. To avoid trickery, an eminent and sceptical surgeon was booked to perform the actual operation – the removal of a large tumour from the neck of a young man – Edward Abbott.

In full anticipation that he would be awake and screaming throughout, Abbott was strapped down.

At 10:00am, the arranged time, there was no sign of Morton, so the surgeon prepared to operate without him. At the very last moment, Morton came bursting in. In his hands was a glass ether inhaler, which he had had built overnight. A complicated system of chambers and valves that had never been tested or calibrated. He had no idea if it would actually work.

He handed the device to the patient, who took some big whiffs of this allegedly magical stuff. Moments later, the patient reported feeling groggy. Morton took the inhaler back, turned to the surgeon and said, ‘sir, your patient is ready’.

What happened next must have seemed like a miracle. The surgery proceeded, and the patient made not a sound, nor a stir. The operation was long and complicated, but successful. At the end, the patient was asked how he felt. His answer, after such invasive surgery – “feels as if my neck has been scratched”.

The once sceptical surgeon turned to his astonished audience and said “gentlemen, this no humbug!”.

Following the demonstration, Morton, with profit in mind, tried to hide the identity of the substance by referring to it as “Letheon”. But others soon identified the ether from its distinct smell. News of its miraculous properties spread around the world in six months – which was lightning speed at the time.

Sadly, Morton’s legacy is tainted by the acrimonious 20-year battle for money, credit and fame that followed.

A month after the demonstration, Morton was issued with a patent for ‘letheon’. The medical community condemned this as unjust and illiberal in such a humane and scientific profession. Morton tried to assure his colleagues that he would not restrict the use of ether by hospitals and charitable institutions. He alleged that his motives were to ensure competent administration of ether, to prevent its misuse, and recoup its development expenses. His colleagues did not yield, so Morton did not enforce the patent, and ether was soon in wide use.

For the rest of his life, Morton obsessively pursued the promotion and recognition of his questionable claim to have discovered anaesthesia. In fact, Georgia surgeon Crawford Long had successfully employed ether as an anaesthetic on March 30, 1842 – over four years before Morton did. So why no glory for Long? Possibly afflicted by the so-called ‘ether frolics’ himself he didn’t get around to publishing his monumental findings until seven years later – three years after Morton’s demonstration. 

Furthermore, Morton’s former mentor from Harvard Dr Charles Jackson, and his former dentistry partner Horrace Wells, both had well-substantiated claims to have introduced Morton to the anaesthetic properties of ether. A three-way battle for the credit ensued for decades.

Morton tried repeatedly to seek compensation from the US Congress for the wide use of his alleged invention. But all four attempts failed. He later launched a lawsuit against the United States Government. This too failed. 

To me it doesn’t matter who was first. All of these men made an important contribution to the development of modern surgery, and the stripping away of its barbaric history. Morton’s contribution was that it was his enterprising commercial spirit – like it or not – that lead to the widespread adoption of anaesthesia. 

Despite two decades of campaigning for recognition, he died aged 49, utterly impoverished. His death on July 15 1868, in New York’s Central Park – unable to find shelter from a heatwave – does not seem befitting of the man who brought anaesthesia to the world stage. A man judged far too harshly by history, for daring to mix money and science.

Personally, as I spend 2014 filling out 80-page funding proposals, I think the man knew was a genius. Not just because I wouldn’t be here without the kind of surgery he made possible. But because he clearly knew what the future had in store for science.

The story of the Kevin Bacon of mathematics: Paul Erdős

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This story is by Dr Nick Beaton. You can hear him tell the story here.

This is the story of a mathematician. This particular mathematician was extraordinary not only because of his remarkable intellect and his influence on mathematical thinking, but also because of his generosity, the way that he viewed mathematics as a social activity to be shared with anyone who was interested, his 30-year amphetamine habit, his eccentric behaviour, and because of his singular drive in pursuing mathematical truth.

Paul Erdős was born on March 26, 1913, in Budapest, Hungary, to two high school mathematics teachers, Anna and Lajos. While Anna was giving birth to him in hospital, their two daughters, aged three and five, contracted septic scarlet fever and died within a day. This tragedy led to Paul and his mother having an extremely close relationship for the remainder of her life.

Erdős was a mathematical prodigy. At three he could multiply three-digit numbers in his head, and at four he discovered negative numbers. He entertained himself by “computing crazy things like how long it would take a train to reach the Sun.” He amused his mother’s friends by asking them how old they were and then calculating in his head how many seconds they had lived.

While he was in high school and university, he and his friends formed a sort of “mathematics club”, where they would meet in town and discuss mathematics and politics. As expected, Paul excelled in mathematics at university, producing a number of highly original results.

After university, he had short-term positions at Manchester, The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (at the same time as Einstein and Gödel), Purdue and Notre Dame. Notre Dame offered to make his position permanent, but he refused, not wishing to be tied down to a permanent job.

In 1954, he was invited to a conference in the Netherlands, but the US government refused to give him a return visa. He was so offended at the thought of being stuck in one country for the rest of his life that he quit his job at Notre Dame and left for Europe, and would end up not returning to the US until the mid-60’s.


Erd̋os is a significant figure in mathematical history for a number of reasons. To start with, if we count by the number of published scientific articles, he is easily the most prolific mathematician in history, with about 1525 articles to his name! (Counted by number of pages, he is surpassed only by the great Leonhard Euler.)

He worked on problems in many diverse areas of mathematics, including number theory, combinatorics, probability, complex analysis, topology and set theory.

His approach was very collaborative—those 1525 papers were written with some 511 different co-authors. He had no interest in fame or fortune, and was always very happy to share his methods and results with others—he had a gift for judging the right kind of problem to suggest to people, and what the “next step” should be after a problem was solved. Famously, he would judge the difficulty of problems by assigning them monetary values—ranging from a few dollars to thousands—and would mail a cheque to the first person to provide a correct solution.

His first major result, at the age of 20, was a proof of a result in number theory called Bertrand’s Postulate or Chebyshev’s Theorem, which states that for a whole number n>3, there is at least one prime between n and 2n-2. One of his most famous results, with Atle Selberg, was the first elementary proof of the Prime Number Theorem, which estimates how frequently we expect to find prime numbers.


He is perhaps most famous, however, for something called Erdős numbers. In the 50’s and 60’s Erdős and his collaborators, notably fellow Hungarian Alfréd Rényi, started investigating random networks. These are an ideal mathematical model for modelling people and their acquaintances. (Just think about Facebook: every person is a node of the network, and we join two nodes with a line if those people are friends.)

There are lots of questions which then arise: How many connections does the average node have? If we pick two nodes at random, how far apart will they be? Are there weak points in the network, where the removal of one node could split the whole thing in two? Nowadays, with the rise of the internet, there’s a lot of research into random networks, and this informs the development of social networks, advertising and security on the web, and the physical infrastructure of the internet. There are also many applications beyond the scope of the internet, like models for the spread of diseases.

In the 60’s, as a bit of a joke, some friends of Erdős’s wondered about the network of mathematicians. Wanting to be precise, they said that two mathematicians should be linked in the network if they’ve published a paper together. They soon realised that Erdős was at the heart of this network, and so they coined the term Erdős number.

Erdős’s number is 0. Anyone who’s published with Erdős has number 1. Anyone who has published with someone with number 1, but not with Erdős himself, has number 2, and so on. If there is no connection between a given mathematician and Erdős, they have Erdős number infinity.

Most mathematicians nowadays would know their Erdős number (mine is 3). Of mathematicians with a finite Erdős number, about 80% have number 5 or less. The average is about 4.65. The largest known finite Erdős number is 13, and there’s only a few people with numbers those high.

There are variants: you may have heard of Bacon numbers, which are used to connect actors to Kevin Bacon, via movie collaborations. Others include Einstein numbers and Black Sabbath numbers. They can even be combined (just add the separate numbers together) to get such curiosities as Erdős-Bacon numbers and Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath numbers (Stephen Hawking and a mathematician/choreographer named Karl Schaffer have the lowest, at 8).


From the time that he quit his job at Notre Dame, Paul more or less gave up having a permanent job. He travelled the world, visiting collaborators, meeting people at conferences and occasionally giving lecture series at universities. He travelled with two half-empty suitcases — one with a few pieces of clothing, the other with mathematical papers.

He would frequently stay at the houses of his collaborators, depending entirely on them for transport, food, etc, (he could barely cook for himself or clean his clothes) and often working them to the bone. At conferences, he would frequently skip the talks and gather with other mathematicians in hotel rooms to work. He once met simultaneously with six different mathematicians working on six different problems!

Erdős constantly gave away money to relatives, colleagues, students and strangers. He could not pass a homeless person without giving them money. In 1984 he received the Wolf Prize, with a $50000 award, and proceeded to donate all but $720 to a scholarship in Israel.

In 1971, his mother, who had been travelling with him since 1964, died. After this he put in nineteen-hour days, keeping himself fortified with 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin, strong espresso, and caffeine tablets. “A mathematician,” Erdős was fond of saying, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” When friends urged him to slow down, he always had the same response: “There’ll be plenty of time to rest in the grave.”

In 1979, Ron Graham (one of Erdős’s most frequent collaborators) bet Erdős $500 that he couldn’t stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdős accepted the challenge, and went cold turkey for thirty days. After Graham paid up, Erdős said, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and just stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month!” He promptly resumed taking pills.

Erdős died September 20, 1996 in Warsaw, of a heart attack, at age 83. His memorial service on October 18, 1996 in Budapest was one of the largest ever held in Hungary, with more than five hundred people in attendance.

His epitaph, which he wrote for himself, is “Végre nem butulok tovább”, which translates as “Finally, I am becoming stupider no more”.


The Unluckiest Astronomer – a tale for the modern scientist

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This story is by Dr Alan Duffy. You can hear him tell the story here.

The subject of this talk is a legendary figure in astronomy, a man with such dedication and diligence in the noble art of 18th century star gazing that he was brought to the edge of sanity, financial ruin and indeed ultimately, over the edge into death. This is a story of Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste le Gentil de la Galaisière or Le Gentil for short. Born 1725 and died 1792. A scientist of breathtaking tenacity and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Our tale begins in 1760 with the first ever, global scientific endeavour about to get underway. 120 separate teams of astronomers were planning travel to all corners of the Earth to observe the passage of the planet Venus in front of the Sun, an event we call a transit.

What of Le Gentil? He’d gotten over an early passing interest in taking holy orders and becoming a priest and instead had enrolled in France’s Royal Academy of Science. To his surprise he was selected to undertake an expedition to observe the transit from Pondicherry in India.

He boarded a boat from Brest in France to the French colony of Pondicherry in India on the 16th March 1760 to observe the predicted 1761 transit. Initially things went well, the boat made good time and arrived in Mauritius four months later. However, in a sign of things to come for poor Le Gentil, his plans were thrown into chaos as war between England and France erupted. His vessel could go no further East and precious time ticked away until the global scientific event of the century.

He was finally able to gain passage on a frigate that was travelling to India’s Coromandel Coast. It was now fully a year since he left France, but the tenacious Le Gentil was off again!

He only had a few months remaining before the transit in June so it was with some trepidation that he asked the captain whether they would make it in time.

Bearing in mind that this was the monsoon season, so the captain was slightly optimistic when assuring him that it would be fine. Predictably, for the next five weeks the ship was hammered by unfavourable winds, wandering around the Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas.

As they were finally closing in on the West Coast of India the captain of the frigate learnt that their destination, Pondicherry, had been captured by the dastardly English! There was nothing else the Captain could do but turn his frigate back to Mauritius.

With our astronomer still on board.

On the day of the transit, our unfortunate Jonah was on a rolling ship, unable to make the observations through his instruments.

At this point, after 18 months of harrowing delays, Le Gentil was back in Mauritius having missed the transit. Now, it just so happens that although transits of Venus are rare, typically only every century or so, they occur in pairs just eight  years apart. After the horrors of his trip it was perhaps understandable that Le Gentil wasn’t too keen on doing it again so decided to stay and wait for the next transit.

After a few years, England and France made peace and the original location of Pondicherry was returned in the treaty to France, so the French government suggested he return to observe the transit from there. And so it was that he finally arrived, a mere eight years since he first left France.

He was warmly welcomed by the governor, and a feast was thrown in his honour. Things were finally looking up for Le Gentil! In Pondicherry he constructed an observatory and patiently awaited the July eclipse the following year. He was in good spirits in the month leading up to the transit even going so far as to entertain the local governor with views of Jupiter and its moons the evening before the transit.

So it was with dismay, but to nobody’s surprise here that he awoke on the morning of the transit to a sky blanketed with clouds… In his own words “I felt doomed, I threw myself on the bed”. To his mounting horror the clouds continued to thicken and obscure the entire transit! Just for a laugh the clouds apparently cleared almost immediately after the transit.

By all account this setback quite unhinged the young astronomer, and his return to France was delayed for several weeks until he recovered. At which point he contracted dysentery. Which just seemed an entirely unnecessary final ignominy for the poor scientist before leaving the Indian Ocean.

Finally on French soil after 11 years, six months and 13 days our hero Le Gentil was back, having managed to miss the only two transits of Venus in his lifetime.

One may imagine if not a warm welcome, at least some commiserations awaited him on his return.

Sadly he came back, broken in health and spirit, to discover his employers at the Royal Academy of Science had legally declared him dead, albeit with a nice epitaph declaring that he had acted to “encourage and protect the spirit of the French scientific research”.

It then gets worse, as his wife had by now remarried, and his relatives had helped themselves to his assets now that he was officially deceased. Incredibly everyone appeared to find his return quite disappointing and he was embroiled in a series of lawsuits until the King of France himself had to intervene to rectify the situation …

And what moral tales are there for us here tonight? Well the number rule would be publish or perish.

Or at the very least keep your supervisor updated with your progress or risk being declared legally dead.

Don’t neglect your private life in the pursuit of science, as your partner may not be too happy with being abandoned for a decade while you investigate nature.

Finally, next time you complain about some onerous task a boss or supervisor has given you, keep the sacrifices that Le Gentil made for science in mind. Just don’t perhaps go to the same extremes.

However, this isn’t quite the end of the story as ultimately Le Gentil would remarry, fathering a daughter and by all accounts his new family was able to help him overcome the nightmarish trip.

So you could say that he lived happily ever after …

For Australia Day we celebrate some Australian science heroes

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Last year we heard the stories of two important Australian scientists.

Our first hero was a Gippsland boy who put Melbourne on the immunological map. His idea of how B cells find their one true antigen love through chopping up their own DNA and wearing their protein heart on their sleeve earned him a Nobel Prize. He was also the very first Australian of the Year, awarded on this day in 1960. Hear Dr Sam Fiorenze talk about his science hero Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet.

Our next hero’s top-secret radar work led to her being a pioneer in radio astronomy when she pointed her antenna to the sky to see what happened. She made some key discoveries about the sun, including calculating its temperature and the magnetic fields of solar flares. Importantly, she also paved the way for women scientists in Australia. Hear Belinda Nicholson talk about her science hero Ruby Payne-Scott.

You can now listen to podcasts of the past stories all over the internet

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Along with listening to the recordings of the past shows on our website and on Soundcloud, you can now find our podcast on:

Catch up with all the past stories today! To get you started, try listening to what everyone else listened to last year. The most listened-to stories from 2013 were:

  1. Dr Norman Do on Évariste Galois.
  2. Dr Katie Mack on Stephen Hawking and her real science hero.
  3. Dr Clare Hampson on George and Mary Papanicolaou.
  4. Dr Carleton Coffrin on Alan Turing.
  5. Dr Tony Wirth on Steve Jobs.

Happy listening and see you at our first show on 4 March 2014.