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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-12-28)

Footprints in the sands of time. Such footprints are left by great men, or so we are told by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), who could pontificate with the best of them on a good day. Immortality being out of our reach for the time being, most of us would like to think that we will be posthumously remembered, and a good way to ensure this is to get our names into the language.

A lot of people have done so, most of them, it would appear, in some scientific field. We have only to think of electricity to be in the company of Monsieur Ampere (1775-1836), Herr Ohm (1787-1854), Signor Volta (1745-1827) and Mr Watt (1736-1819), a pleasingly cosmopolitan group.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) left memorials all over the place. The newton is the unit of force in the current International System (SI) of units for measuring all physical quantities. He also left us the Newtonian telescope, which uses a mirror instead of a lens, Newton’s laws of Motion, Newtonian mechanics, and that ingenious toy consisting of five metal balls hanging in a frame that bang into each other in interesting ways. It’s called Newton’s Cradle.

The botanists did pretty well too. The dahlia, a Mexican genus, gets its name from Anders Dahl, an 18th Century Swedish botanist; the fuchsia, from South America, is named after a 16th Century German, Leonard Fuchs, and the bougainvillea owes its name to the first French circumnavigator of the world, Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811). The British made a resounding entry with Sir Joseph Banks (1744-1820), who circumnavigated the world with Captain James Cook between 1768 and 1771. He brought back 3600 plants, 1400 of them never before classified, and the Banksia genus of shrubs is named after him.

But perhaps the most resounding monument of this kind belongs to an American, Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). He was nothing if not versatile: one encyclopedia describes him as an “engineer, inventor, designer, architect, writer, educator, philosopher and poet.” After a failed business venture into lightweight housing, he founded the Dymaxion Corporation. Its products included a doughnut-shaped house suspended from a mast and an omnidirectional, three-wheeled, fuel-efficient car, which was never mass-produced. Probably his best-known invention was the geodesic dome, patented in 1947. It consists of a net of interconnected tetrahedrons with a high strength-to-weight ratio. These domes graced the U S pavilions at international exhibitions in Moscow (1959) and Montreal (1967), in addition to many other applications. Fuller said of himself, “I just invent. Then I wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented.”

At some stage he must have done some pretty advanced chemistry, because that is the field in which his name survives. It seems that there are certain ball-shaped molecules containing carbon atoms. They are known as “fullerenes”, and the first to be discovered (containing 60 carbon atoms) is known by the resounding title of “buckminsterfullerene.” It is a well-earned memorial, but it is a relief to know that the scientific fraternity has given it the irreverent nickname “buckyball”!

As promised in my last column, I wrote to the publishers of The Chambers Dictionary with my theory about the origin of the word “condom”. I received a friendly and courteous reply, but no “Gee whiz! Why didn’t we think of that?” So fame, alas, continues to elude me.

I wish all our readers a peaceful, happy – and memorable - New Year. Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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