May 23, 2010

Blue Girls

by John Crowe Ransom

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

"Blue Girls" by John Crowe Ransom. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Ursula Hegi, (books by this author) born in Düsseldorf, Germany (1946).

It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon, (books by this author) born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947).

It's the birthday of the children's writer Margaret Wise Brown, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1910). She preferred playing outdoors to reading, but when she went on to boarding school and then to Hollins College in Virginia, she studied English and hoped to write literature for adults.

But then she went to teacher training college and got to work with little kids, and she was inspired by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, an education reformer who had an experimental school in New York City. Mitchell pioneered concepts that we take for granted now — considering student's behavior, psychology, family life, and environment; interdisciplinary teaching; using creativity in the classroom; trying to figure out how each child learns best and teaching to that method. Mitchell was particularly interested in how young children absorb language, and felt that the language itself was important to them, not just what it communicated. And she thought that the experience of real life was enough for kids without fantasy. Mitchell took Brown under her wing, and then Brown took her ideas and wrote books that sounded good, that were soothing to children, that found the magic in their own realities: "Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon."

Margaret Wise Brown wrote about 100 books, including the beloved Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny (1942).

She was stylish and beautiful. A 1946 profile of Brown in Life magazine said: "In addition to her solid claim to the title of World's Most Prolific Picture-Book Writer, Miss Brown, who is unmarried, is probably prettier than any of her competitors. She is a tall, green-eyed, ash blonde in her early 30s with a fresh outdoors look about her. People who meet her for the first time are likely to think she is extremely sophisticated, which is entirely true." She had a series of lovers, both men and women, and in 1952 she got engaged. But she died later that same year, at the age of 42, of an embolism.

It's the birthday physicist and electrical engineer John Bardeen, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1908). Before he came along, the field of electronics could only go so far because the only way to transmit and amplify electric impulses was through a vacuum tube, a large glass device, which was bulky, fragile, expensive, and used a lot of energy. Plus it took awhile for the filaments to heat up, so if you turned on a radio powered by a vacuum tube, you had to wait awhile for it to get up and running.

After he got a master's in electric engineering, he went to work as a geophysicist for the Gulf Oil Company. But after a few years, he went back to school at Princeton to study mathematical physics, and some of his colleagues there were studying quantum mechanics and semiconductors, concepts he used in his later research. He went on to Harvard, to the University of Minnesota, and worked for the Navy during WWII, and afterwards, to Bell Laboratories in New Jersey to work for a research group headed up by William Shockley. Bardeen and his friend Walter Brattain worked together, and in 1947 they set out to determine what was wrong with an amplifier that Shockley had made. They replaced silicon with germanium, and they rethought their assumption that electrons operated evenly on all parts of a metal or semi-metal, when in fact they acted differently on the surface. Bardeen and Brattain's boss, William Shockley, further refined their invention, and together they had created the first transistor. In 1952, a transistor was used in the first commercial product, a hearing aid. Two years later, in October of 1954, the first transistor radio hit the market.

The first transistor radio was a Regency TR1 and it cost $49.95. There are an estimated 7 billion transistor radios around today — any small radio that isn't digital is in fact a transistor radio, but they became so common that people dropped the word "transistor" completely.

In 1956, Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley received a joint Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the transistor. Bardeen found out about the Nobel by hearing it on the radio while he was making eggs in the kitchen, and he was so excited that he dropped the frying pan on the floor.

Bardeen went on to teach at the University of Illinois, and did research in superconductivity, a field that had frustrated some of the world's greatest scientists, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Niels Bohr. In 1972, Bardeen became the only person to receive a second Nobel Prize in physics.

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