The University at Buffalo Libraries has a wonderful online exhibit called Sci-Philately: A Selective History of Science on Stamps, curated by Maiken Naylor. Naylor was a librarian at University at Buffalo for fourteen years and an avid stamp collector with degrees in both the arts and sciences. She died this year on August 24th at 74 years old, but her love of science and archiving lives on via this glimpse into her personal stamp collection, which she’s categorized appropriately by topic. She writes in her introduction, “Some of the most satisfying stamps are not the ones displaying portraits, but those presenting ideas and experiments. Such as the photoelectric effect, cloud chamber photographs, or the solar absorption spectrum.” Here are some of my favorites — beautiful illustrations interpreting key moments in the history of discovery and invention.
Astronomy & Cosmology
Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century BC) considered the sizes and distances of the sun and the moon, and was the first to try to calculate the distances of these bodies geometrically. Furthermore, he advanced the theory that the sun was at rest at the center of the sphere of fixed stars, and that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. The apparent motion of the stars was due to the daily rotation of the earth. Copernicus was familiar with Aristarchus’ theory of the universe, which at the time, however, did not find favor with the ancient philosophers.
Math & Computation
One example of a fractal is the “snowflake” curve constructed by taking an equilateral triangle and repeatedly erecting smaller equilateral triangles on the middle third of the progressively smaller sides. Theoretically, the result would be a figure of finite area but with a perimeter of infinite length, consisting of an infinite number of vertices. In mathematical terms, such a curve cannot be differentiated. The Swedish mathematician Helge von Koch created this curve 100 years ago. Four such iterations are shown on the right snowflake (three on the left) but cannot be distinguished with this low magnification. (Encarta) The Macau stamp is part of a set on chaos and fractals.
While celebrating its centenary in 1977, the Royal Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain shared honors with English Nobel prize winners in chemistry and physics on these stamps: William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg, for their analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays and their X-ray spectrometer; Archer Martin (1910- ) and Richard Synge (1914-94), for their invention of partition chromatography; Walter Haworth (1883-1950), for research on carbohydrates and the synthesis of vitamin C; and Derek Barton (1918- ), for his work in conformational analysis of steroids.
Evolution & the Fossil Record
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a British naturalist who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection independently from Darwin, based on his travel observations as a collector and purveyor of animal specimens. His communications with Darwin, which included a paper on evolution, stimulated the latter to hasten his publication of the Origin of Species. Wallace was an authority on the geographic distribution of species around the world and the effects of features such as landbridges. He noted the abrupt separation of Asian species from those of Australia by an imaginary line running through a deep ocean channel between the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi and through the Lombok Strait, now known as the Wallace Line.
Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1899-1985), an Australian, studied the mechanism of immunity and the formation of antibodies. He speculated that the ability to form antibodies in response to a foreign organism or protein in the body, which then combine with it and render it harmless, is not inborn but takes place soon after birth. Exposure to antigens of an embryo produced immunological tolerance. For this he shared the Nobel prize in medicine and physiology in 1960. His clonal selection theory of acquired immunity is of great importance for organ transplants. This Australian stamp is one of a set of four equally illegible issues crowded with text.
Heredity & the Genetic Code
Francis Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice Wilkins determined the molecular structure of DNA as a double helix or two intertwined spirals of phosphate and sugar molecules linked by pairs of organic bases. The sequences of the paired organic bases form the genetic code of an organism. Doug Sutton raises the possibility that the x-ray picture in the background of this stamp [not pictured] may be “photo 51”, and as such the only philatelic reference to the work of Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray studies yielded the images that suggested the DNA structure to the prize recipients. The double helix is an eye-catching symbol appearing on many stamps, including the Czech Mendel stamp above, and examples from Liechtenstein and Israel [pictured above].
Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) name is associated with the general and special theories of relativity, but his explanation of the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon which could not be be accounted for by electromagnetic wave theory, won him the Nobel prize in physics. He proposed a corpuscular model of radiation as the photoelectric mechanism. Light travels in quanta (or photons) and must be of a certain threshhold energy (or color) to cause the emission of electrons from a given surface, while its intensity determines only the number of electrons so released.
The 1994 German stamp at left shows a resistor, a common element in electronic circuits, and commemorates the discovery of Ohm’s law, named after the German mathematician Georg Simon Ohm (1787-1854) who formulated it. Ohm aspired to be a university professor, and after many teaching positions as a mathematician began to experiment in physics. His law describes the relationship between current, voltage, and resistance in a circuit, namely, that a voltage drop across a resistor is equal to the resistance times the current running through it, or V =R x I. The unit of resistance is also called an ohm; one ohm causes a one volt drop for a current of one ampere. Resistors are color-coded to show their value, or amount of resistance: the band at far right refers to the tolerance, or accuracy, and may be gold or silver, (5% or 10% accuracy). The two bands at the left indicate two numbers, which together form a value, such as 27 in this case; (red = 2, violet = 7). The third band is the code for a multiplier in powers of 10, in this case yellow, which stands for 10,000. The value for this resistor is therefore 270,000 ohms, but the tolerance value is somewhat in doubt, being neither distinctly gold, nor silver, though the yellow-greenish tinge makes gold more likely.
The Atomic Bomb
1968 brought the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a multilateral agreement signed and ratified by the US, USSR, UK, and 133 non-nuclear-weapon states to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to assure that the peaceful nuclear programs of non-nuclear-weapon states were not diverted to weapons production. The United Nations notes this event with a stamp in 1972 [not pictured], showing an atomic cloud crossed out with an X. Belgium also observes the 25th anniversary of this treaty (but not till 1995) with another impressive example [pictured above] of a mushroom cloud inscribed with the words “plus jamais” - never again.
Geology & Mapping
The set of stamps from British Antarctic Territory issued in 1982 deals with the continental drift of Gondwana and its resulting parts, as seen from the vantage point of Antarctica and the South Pole. It also documents the climatic changes that have taken place in Antarctica as revealed by fossils of trees, shrubs, and animals. Shown is lystrosaurus. What was a tightly packed assembly 280 MYA (#1) had moved north en masse by 175 MYA (#3), when violent volcanic activity also occurred. The continents were seen widely dispersed 50 MYA (#5), Africa and South America opening a wide rift 100 million years ago and moving north while Australia was still closely bound to Antarctica. In the upper right quadrant India, a triangle, can be seen heading for Asia to form the Himalayas. The last stamp (#6) shows the present alignment of the continents around Antarctica, and penguins as its current population.