New Scientist

Your correspondent Cindee Bulthaupt asks whether there have been any successful blind scientists. There certainly have. One of the most famous was the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801 – 1883), inventor of the stroboscope. At the age of 28 he gazed at the midday sun for 20 seconds, with a view to studying the after effects. These turned out to be temporary blindness for several days, followed by a gradual deterioration of vision and permanent blindness at the age of 42. Despite this calamity, he continued his researches on subjective visual phenomena (!) for the next forty years. His wife and son (and later his son-in-law G.L. van der Mensbrugghe) performed the experiments, which he devised and interpreted.

Even more remarkably, Plateau began to do experiments on the shapes of soap films AFTER he became blind. With the help of a sighted assistant, he measured the angles between soap bubbles in a foam (the connecting edges are now called Plateau borders in his memory), and performed hundreds of other original experiments on the shapes and colours of soap films. He interpreted the results in a great work Statique expérimentale et théoretique des liquids soumis aux seules forces moleculaires, where he was the first to enunciate the role of intermolecular forces in film stability.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please email Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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