The Hacker's Almanac for Thursday March 8, 2007

8 March, 2007

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On this day in 1978, the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series premiered on BBC Radio 4. Author Douglas Adams had proposed doing a show called 'The Ends of the Earth', where each episode would end with the destruction of the planet. Adams needed a device to provide context for the conceit and so he introduced the character of Ford Prefect, an alien correspondent reporting on earth for a traveler's guide.

A few years earlier, Adams had been hitchhiking around Europe with a copy of the Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe and, while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria and looking up at the stars, he thought it would be a good idea for someone to write a hitchhiker's guide to the entire galaxy. The idea ended up becoming central to the series and Adams decided only to destroy the earth in the first episode.

Despite premiering in a late-night time slot, the show got a good reaction and it slowly became popular. It combined sharp satire of the absurdities of daily life with a purposefully preposterous plot centering on the adventures of a hapless Englishman, Arthur Dent, who is the only surviver after the earth is destroyed to make room for a "hyperspace bypass".

The next year, Adams released a book based on the first four episodes, which was an immediate hit, topping the book charts and selling 250,000 copies in the first few months. Gradually, Hitchhiker's Guide grew into a phenomenon with TV, film, stage, and video game adaptations and book sales in the millions.

Adams wrote three sequels, the first of which, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he based on the second series of the radio show. For the third book, Life, The Universe and Everything, Adams adapted an un-produced treatment he'd written for a Doctor Who movie. Like the final two installments, it was later adapted for radio by the BBC.

It's the birthday of German chemist Otto Hahn, born in Frankfurt in 1879. His father was a glazier and entrepreneur and he had a sheltered childhood, doing science experiments in the laundry room. His father wanted him to study architecture and take up management of the family's properties, but Hahn had his heart set on industrial chemistry

After graduating from the University of Munich, Hahn took a post at University College London under Sir William Ramsay who was famous for discovering the existence of inert gases. Hahn started work in the new field of radiochemistry, where he soon made a name for himself by discovering a series of new radioactive elements including mesothorium I, now called 'radium 228', which has wide medical use.

During World War One, Hahn was drafted into a special unit of the German army for chemical warfare. He worked along with other notable German scientists to produce poison gas weapons like chlorine, which killed thousands of French, British, and Candian troops by asphyxiation.

In 1938, when Nazi Germany invaded Austria, Hahn helped his longtime research partner Lise Meitner flee to Holland. Meitner was an Austrian Jew and so feared for her life. Hahn and Meitner had been in the process of conducting a series of experiments with radioactive elements, which Hahn continued. Later that year, He bombarded a uranium sample with neutrons and found trace elements of barium in the resulting sample. He concluded that the uranium neucleus had "burst" into multiple atomic nuclei of lesser weight. Hahn had split the atom and discovered nuclear fission.

Sadly, Wilhelm Traube, a Jewish chemist, who assisted in the experiment was later arrested and, despite Hahn's attempts to rescue him, he died from abuse in prison in Berlin in 1942. Hahn quietly opposed the Nazi regime throughout the war, using his lab to shelter colleagues who faced deportation. His wife, Edith, collected food for Jews hiding around Berlin.

At the end of the war, Hahn was interned in England along with a number of other prominent German scientists suspected of working on nuclear weapons. While he was there, American forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Hahn fell into a deep depression.

That fall, Hahn won the Nobel prize for the discovery of fission, but didn't attend the ceremony. He spent much of the rest of his life organizing prominent scientists in opposition to the use of nuclear weapons and was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but never won it.

Hahn died on July, 28th, 1968 at the age of 89 in Göttingen, Germany.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia except where otherwise noted.

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