Archive for October 2nd, 2009

Ardipithecus ramidus discovery adds to the story of human evolution

J.H. Matternes, 2009

J.H. Matternes, 2009

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

New information on Ardipithecus ramidus, the most complete fossilized skeleton proposed as an ancestor of modern humans, was published today in Science.

As an added bonus, 11 papers that describe A. ramidus and its environment are available via free download from Science (non-members just need to register) here.

Interested in what the articles say but don’t have time to read them all? Discover Magazine has a nice synopsis.


Napoleon in Outer Space

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Everyone has their own unique filing system. Some of us do things alphabetically, while others prefer to make lists using some sort of chronological order. I see connections. It’s just the way my head works, and I know I’m not the only one. If you saw the Academy Award winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, you might know what I’m talking about. Associations and connections help me remember seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of what most people would call minutia.

While this can make me a popular partner during games of Trivial Pursuit, it may be better to compare it to the process used in the Six Degrees of Separation game, wherein the links between one subject and another are explored. A popular variation of this game used ubiquitous actor Kevin Bacon as the focal point to which players would be challenged to connect another actor or celebrity.

I once won a bar bet by linking Kevin Bacon to Charles Dickens.

Ready? Here it goes.

Charles Dickens is the great, great, grandfather of British character actor, Alan Napier, best known for his portrayal of Alfred the Butler in the 1960s Batman television show. Napier appeared with Burgess Meredith, who played the Penguin. Meredith was in the Rocky films with Sylvester Stallone, who starred opposite John Lithgow in the film Cliffhanger. Lithgow was in Footloose with… Kevin Bacon!

By now, you may be wondering where all of this is going? Fair enough. It’s to let you in on why I started thinking about Napoleon Bonaparte while reading an article on the Hubble Space Telescope. When relating modern events to history I usually work backwards, but for the sake of suspense I’m willing to use a more conventional order and move through the events as they actually happened.

Napoleon, as you may recall, was a famous French emperor and is often credited with saying that “An army travels on its stomach.” He was referring to the fact that well nourished soldiers function better than those that are hungry. To help his military, Napoleon offered a reward to anyone that could devise a method of preserving food in an easily portable manner.

Enter Nicolas Appert, a maker of confections and part time inventor. After years of experimenting, Nicholas Appert perfected a method of placing food inside of a jar, which he then closed using a cork inserted with the help of a large vise. The jar was then placed in boiling water; forcing the heated air inside the jar to exit the vessel and create a vacuum seal. Appert was able to preserve many types of foods using this method, including meat, eggs, and vegetables. His most impressive feat was sealing an entire sheep inside his biggest container.

Nicholas Appert not only collected the 12,000 francs that had been offered by Napoleon, he also made a name for himself. Well, to be more exact, his name became associated with the process known as Appertisation, more than a 100 years before Louis Pasteur demonstrated how the heating process could be used to destroy bacteria.

Appert’s method was soon adopted by Peter Durand, who used the process to preserve food in heavy iron cans. The cans wouldn’t catch on for quite some time due to two interesting points. One, most people couldn’t seal metal cans without very special equipment. Two, people couldn’t easily get the cans open as the can opener wouldn’t be invented for another 50 years. Seriously, Durand had instructed that his cans should be opened with a hammer and chisel.

People continued to use Appertisation to preserve their food, but they referred to the process as canning, in spite of the fact that glass jars were used almost exclusively in the process. Those jars came in many shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of brand names. None were better known than the Mason Jar, developed in 1858 by John Mason. The patent that Mason held on his particular design of jar ran out in the late 1800s.

That’s when five brothers formed the Ball Corporation and began to manufacture what was still America’s favorite way to preserve food. This was the beginning of one of the largest container manufacturing companies in the country, the stylized Ball logo appearing on many of the cans and bottles in your local grocery store, as well as the Mason jars that are still readily available to put up the latest crop from your garden.

As with many large companies, the Ball family soon looked to diversify and in the late 1950s they jumped into the space race. Perhaps, “stumbled” into the space race is more accurate. Ball had hired a company in Boulder, Colorado to design a device to accurately measure glass materials. The device was never produced, but the Ball Corporation was so impressed that they ended up buying the engineering company, which eventually grew into Ball Aerospace, one of the nation’s leading space-related businesses.

Ball Aerospace has contributed greatly to a variety of projects, including building satellite instrumentation used by Longmont based DigitalGlobe, for their Worldview Satellites. If you’ve ever used Google Earth, you’re familiar with the work done by DigitalGlobe. Likewise, Ball Aerospace is responsible for most of the equipment used on the new Kepler Planet Finder, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

So there you have it: Napoleon Bonaparte connected to the Hubble Telescope by just a few degrees of separation. I was even able to bring it as close as Boulder and Longmont. To connect directly into Fort Collins, I would have needed to involve another Napoleon. You see, Napoleon Dynamite star, Jon Heder, was born in Fort Collins back in 1977. But that’s a blog for a different day.

October 2009
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