Wilhelm Wien and Blackbodies

Wilhelm WienIt seems the worse my mood gets, the worse the birthdays I have to choose from get. I’ve heard it said that depression is anger targeted inward. I don’t think that’s true. But I do find I have a curious combination of depression and anger. I think you can see that anger in everything I’ve written today. I don’t expect this article to be especially angry. Just short.

On this day in 1832, Horatio Alger was born. He was a very popular writer in the 19th century. He wrote what is charitably called “crap.” Typical kind of story: poor boy goes to rich man’s house in search of employment; rich man has a dog that immediately takes to the poor boy; rich man hires him because of the dog, and it is up, up, and away for the poor boy’s prospects, who probably ends up marrying the rich man’s daughter. It’s exactly the kind of stories that the people wanted to believe during the Gilded Age and exactly the kind of stories the rich wanted the poor to be reading. Today, “Horatio Alger” is a synonym for any kind of unbelievable rags to riches story. In general, we don’t see such stories in their pure form because we are a much more cynical people. (For good reason!) There have been times when there were jobs for the asking. There were times when what most of the Republican Party now believes was true: if you aren’t working, you aren’t trying hard enough. Sorry folks, that’s now no more true than the statement, “Horatio Alger was a great writer!”

Comedian Bill Bailey is 50 today. I know him from Black Books. But he’s a very good stand-up comedian. This bit is pretty funny:

Other birthdays: Dutch landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1598); Italian poet Metastasio (1698); composer Vasily Kalinnikov (1866); biologist Ross Granville Harrison (1870); inventor of my least favorite game Risk, Albert Lamorisse (1922); actor and dancer Gwen Verdon (1925); comedian Charles Nelson Reilly (1931); writer Edmund White (74); actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus (53); actor Penelope Ann Miller (50); and I’m sure a fine actor but he annoys me, Orlando Bloom (37).

The day, however, belongs to the great physicist Wilhelm Wien who was born on this day in 1864. He is a very important figure in our understanding of blackbody radiation. The idea of this is that you can tell what temperature the surface of an object is by the color that it radiates. The sun is yellow and so that means it is roughly 6,000 K. But don’t get confused here: a yellow piece of paper is not 6,000 K; it is yellow because that is the light it reflects not the light it radiates. The piece of paper is at room temperature, which means it radiates light in the IR spectrum which we humans can’t see. Wien deduced “Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature.” This, of course, is why it is always difficult to write about scientists. You see, the sun doesn’t just radiate yellow light. After all, where would the blues and the reds come from? What I was talking about was the maximum. The sun radiates its maximum energy at yellow, but there is still a whole lot of blues and reds to have those wonderful sunsets. So Wien was dealing with these distributions. Anyway, blackbody radiation theory is fascinating stuff.

Happy birthday Wilhelm Wien!

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