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Napoleon's Major Wardrobe Malfunction: An Introduction to Science XPlained
As Yale's Ainissa Ramirez explains in this new video, the harsh Russian winter, combined with the chemical properties of tin, may have led to "the greatest wardrobe malfunction in history."
200 years ago today, Napoleon's army fought the Russians in the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, one of the bloody battles that followed Napoleon's evacuation of Moscow. While this battle may have been a French victory, it turned out to be a major strategic setback, as the Russians were able to block Napoleon's preferred path of retreat in his long march out of Russia.
Napoleon shifted his forces north over land that had been devastated by both the previous French advance and by Russia's scorched-earth policies. Only 10,000 men made it out of Russia out of an initial Grande Armée force of over half a million.
Two centuries later, historians are still debating the exact cause of this military catastrophe.
In the video below, Ainissa Ramirez, a materials scientist at Yale University, entertains the idea that chemistry, not generalship, may have played the decisive role in Napoleon's defeat. As Ramirez points out, the bonding structure of tin atoms starts to change when temperatures drop below 56°F (13.2°C), and this process speeds up as the temperature decreases. Tin was the main metal used to make the buttons of French uniforms. As the temperature approached -30°C, the tin buttons may have turned to dust.
In other words, the harsh Russian winter, combined with the chemical properties of tin, may have led to "the greatest wardrobe malfunction in history."
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
Due to its immense historical significance, Napoleon's Russian campaign has served as a springboard for literary and scientific inquiries alike. This event was also the subject of perhaps the greatest flow chart ever made. That was produced by Charles Joseph Minard, the French civil engineer and pioneer in information graphics.
Minard's chart. A larger version can be found here.
Minard's flow chart displays several variables, such as the size of the Napoleon's forces, the geographical coordinates, as well as the temperature along the path of the retreat. We can vividly see how the army melts away as the Russian winter sets in. In this sense, Minard's famous chart has been said to defy "the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence."
Similarly, our understanding of materials science can help to enhance our understanding of history, or even change our interpretation of events altogether. As Ramirez points out, materials "are not static objects." Tin, after all, is extremely important in our world today, as it is a major component of solder that is used to hold together electronic equipment. Due to its high value, Ramirez points out, tin has become the source of many conflicts around the world, and it has obtained the unusual designation as a "conflict material."
Yale associate professor Ainissa Ramirez is a material scientist who wants to share her love for science. This is her last year in the academic world, but she’ll still be teaching in her new career as a “science popularizer.”
Armed with a passion for materials science and a gift for explaining scientific concepts in lay terms that do not dumb down the principles at work, Ramirez is developing a series of short videos that we are thrilled to be presenting on Big Think. The videos take a science lens to topics in the news. Ramirez told us, “I have been an advocate of science education for over a decade, so I started this series to get a broader reach.” The videos can also be viewed at Science Xplained, and on Youtube.
Ramirez's career change is a natural extension of other things she’s been doing. In 2004 she started Science Saturdays, a family oriented program that brings the excitement of research and the passion of scientists to school-age children in New Haven. Lectures are on topics like “Genetic Anthropology: Finding Human History in Spit,” and “How to See a Black Hole.”
Stay tuned to Big Think for more.
Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
A scientist in Sweden makes a controversial presentation at a future of food conference.
- A behavioral scientist from Sweden thinks cannibalism of corpses will become necessary due to effects of climate change.
- He made the controversial presentation to Swedish TV during a "Future of Food" conference in Stockholm.
- The scientist acknowledges the many taboos this idea would have to overcome.
Depiction of cannibalism in the Medieval ages.
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President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.
A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
Medical workers draw blood from volunteers participating in a trial of a coronavirus vaccine at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.
- In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
- Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
- It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
Talkspace.com<p>Former employees also questioned the legitimacy of certain interventions by the company into client-therapist interactions. For example, after one therapist sent a client a link to an online anxiety worksheet, a company representative instructed her to try to keep clients inside the app.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was like, 'How do you know I did that?'" Karissa Brennan, a therapist who worked with Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, told the Times. "They said it was private, but it wasn't."</p><p>Other former employees said the company would pay special attention to its "enterprise partner" clients, who worked at companies like Google. One therapist said Talkspace contacted her for taking too long to respond to Google clients.</p><p>Talkspace responded to the Times with a Medium <a href="https://medium.com/@founders_22883/talkspace-founders-respond-to-a-new-york-times-article-78d6f5c45c59" target="_blank">post</a>, which claimed the Times report contained false and "uninformed assertions."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements," the post states.</p>