Science! Things the Irish Taught us about the World

Why the sky's blue, how we measure storms, an inspiring feminist, and a man with a law named after him.
John-Tyndall - the man who told us why the sky is blue
John Tyndall – the man who told us why the sky is blue.

Science! with Chad Pelley

March’s mid-month holiday celebrates the Irish on the island; here are four Irish folks who taught us about the world we live in.

In the late 1800s, John Tyndall explained why the sky is blue. The answer is that it isn’t necessarily blue, but rather, rendered blue to the eye. White light from the sun is constantly beaming down on us. This white light is actually a mixture of colours, including the three our eyes respond to the most – red, green, and blue. As white light from the sun beams down upon us on a clear day, molecules naturally present in the sky, like oxygen and nitrogen, scatter the colours in this white light in such a manner the blue light from the sun is basically “pulled out of the mix.” This is because, of these three colours, blue light scatters faster, easier, or more strongly than red and green, on account of its short wavelength. “But what about sunsets being yellow,” asks the most clever among you. That happens because during sunsets the sun is farther away, so light from the sun is passing a longer distance, and much of the blue light is already scattered out of the mix.

Francis Beaufort invented the wind scale that people like Ryan Snodden use when forecasting. It’s a measure of wind speed – 0-6 on the Beaufort scale are various categories of “breeze,” and 7-10 various types of “gales,” with 10 being a strong gale or “storm.” 11 is a severe storm, and 12 a hurricane wind.

A not so fun fact about Mary Ward – she fell under the wheels of a steam car her cousins built, becoming the world’s first fatal car accident victim. Before her untimely demise, she was a bright-minded scientist at a time when most women were excluded from formal education. She was, like most women at the time, taught at home, but took an intense interest in science, essentially from birth: she had an extensive collection of insects going by age 3. She was also a gifted illustrator, and among the first to use magnifying glasses and microscopes to conduct in-depth drawings of everything from insects to telescopes. Excluded from formal schooling because of her gender, she found ways around it, like writing directly to scientists she admired, and was welcomed into their circles, and asked to illustrate things for them. Believing no one would publish her first book on account of her being a woman, she self-published, and self-promoted her book Sketches with the Microscope, to prove to publishers it would sell if they published and distributed it. She was right, her pioneering book on the matter was selling through print runs even after her death. Her great-granddaughter Lalla plays Romana on BBC’s Doctor Who.

Robert Boyle managed to get a law named after himself – Boyle’s law states that the pressure of a gas tends to increase as the volume of a gas increases. If that sounds like jibberish to you, don’t worry, most first year science students feel the same way.

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