The Perks of Princes

It must be nice to be a prince.

No, not the Artist Formerly Known As Squiggle, I mean the real thing.

Well, let’s be precise here. Modern princes don’t seem to get the same benefits as that earlier princes did.

Consider, for example, Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682). An early precursor to the modern job hopper, he had careers as soldier, scientist, artist, privateer, and colonial governor. At one time, more than a third of the land that became Canada was named for him (“Rupert’s Land” included all of modern Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, and parts of Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Minnesota, Montana, and snippets of both North and South Dakota) and the city of Prince Rupert is still a going concern.

But having places named after you is a pretty standard perk for a prince. Rupert had some real goodies. According to contemporary documents, he had a hunting poodle that could find hidden treasure, catch bullets in its mouth, and predict the future. That’s one heck of a dog!

More seriously, as a prince, Rupert had mathematicians standing by to help him win his bar bets. In 1693, he bet that it would be possible to cut a hole in a cube large enough to allow a second cube of the same size to pass through. Mathematician John Wallis stepped up with a mathematical proof showing that it was even possible to cut a hole that would allow a cube larger than the original to pass through. How many modern princes have on-call mathematicians? (“Prince Rupert’s Cube” is still found as a question in books on recreational mathematics.)

The really interesting perk of being a prince was the tendency of scientists to curry favor by naming things after you. The objects now called “Prince Rupert’s Drops” were known at least as early as 1625 in Germany and Holland. Rupert’s contribution was limited to giving a few of them to King Charles II as curiosities. It was Charles who passed them on to the Royal Society for study, but Rupert got the credit.

Prince Rupert’s Drops are droplets of glass created by dripping molten glass into cold water. The glass solidifies incrementally from the outside in, resulting in a series of compression stresses that act to toughen the glass against impact. One can hit the droplet with a hammer without breaking it. However, any damage to the extended tail of the droplet results in the stresses being released in a high-speed chain reaction that explosively reduces the glass to powder.

Modern high-speed cameras can capture the explosion and allow it to be appreciated as both a scientific and artistic phenomenon.

It may be good to be king, but if Rupert is any indication, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to be prince.

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