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November has a “World Kindness Day,” and we wish a happy holiday to all who celebrate. Kindness, and its cousins sympathy and empathy, are studied by psychologists for the insight they provide into how the brains of humans (and other species) work, as we see in these selections from the archive. We also take a look at agriculture: in 1850 fully 64 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture; by 1967 only 5 percent did. Mechanization enabled this dramatic shift. Marie Curie’s birthday is celebrated on November 7, and it’s also a good time to ponder the course of studies in radioactivity (a term she coined) and atomic physics.


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I hope you enjoy the journey!
Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American



A hospital for children in Leipzig, Germany, is a good example of formalized kindness, from 1885.

July 1848:

Some homespun wisdom: “A trifling kindness drives despair away, and makes the path of life cheerful and pleasant."

September 1885:

In the 19th century, formalized kindness as “charity" or “benevolence” was directed to those in need.

September 2015:

There is evidence that animals feel empathy.

Mechanization of Agriculture

Horse Powered Machine

1864: A machine designed to extract energy from a horse. How efficient it was we don’t know but the horse certainly doesn’t look happy.

September 1864:

We think of engines in terms of “horse-power” but here’s one device built to be horse-powered.

May 1909:

In agribusiness today, computer savvy is useful; a century ago the handy farmer was also a good blacksmith.

August 1967:

Specialized machines to harvest specific crops have a long history of development. Wheat was easier; cotton and tree fruits were much harder.


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Curie and Ramsay in lab

Pierre Curie visits William Ramsay in his lab, 1904.

January 1904:

William Ramsay based some of his research on Marie and Pierre Curie’s 1898 discovery, radium.

November 1911:

"Marie Sklodowska Curie: The Greatest Woman Scientist, Twice Recipient of the Nobel Prize.”

August 1949:

The regular radioactive decay of atoms became a useful clock to find the age of Egyptian tombs, Pleistocene sediments and even the earth.

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For more highlights from the archives, you can read December's 50, 100 & 150 Years Ago column.


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