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Reconstructing Fahrenheit
January 31, 2013   
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Scientists at the Gdańsk University of Technology have created a computer-generated portrait of Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, the 17th-century Polish-born Dutch physicist best known for developing a temperature scale now named after him.

The project was made possible by a “genetic algorithm” and a specially designed computer application.
No portrait of the world-famous scientist, who invented the mercury thermometer, has survived to the present day. All the images of Fahrenheit available on the internet are pure guesswork. It is only known for sure that Fahrenheit, who was born in the city of Gdańsk 326 years ago, wore a wig, coat and a vest.

The project was not merely designed to satisfy scientific curiosity, the scientists say. “Someone of Fahrenheit’s stature is a role model worthy of emulation,” says Prof. Henryk Krawczyk, rector of the Gdańsk University of Technology, who supervised the project.

He added that the Gdańsk University of Technology decided to commemorate the great scientist also because he was linked with Gdańsk.

Previously, the university’s computer scientists honored eminent astronomer Johannes Hevelius in a similar way. The astronomer (1611-1687) gained a reputation as the founder of lunar topography and described 10 new constellations, seven of which are still recognized by contemporary astronomers.

Hevelius was a councilor and mayor of Gdańsk. His appearance did not pose a problem to the scientists—unlike in the case of Fahrenheit.

No source contained an authentic image of the man who invented the Fahrenheit scale. So a contest was announced for an artist’s impression of what Fahrenheit looked like. Contest participants were expected to show him against the backdrop of the university’s northern courtyard, which is named after the prominent physicist.

The concepts varied. Historians suggested that the main source of information should be the skull of Fahrenheit’s father and grandfather, both of whom are buried in the Holy Virgin Mary’s Basilica, the largest church in Gdańsk. Finally, however, Krawczyk’s concept prevailed under which representatives of various disciplines of science and modern technology joined forces to create the most probable image of Fahrenheit. Working under Krawczyk’s guidance, Jerzy Proficz and Tomasz Ziółkowski, young programmers at the TASK Academic Computer Center of the Gdańsk University of Technology, used genetic algorithm tools to create a portrait of Fahrenheit.

“This can even be described in terms of scientists having fun,” says Krawczyk.

In the project, the researchers used a supercomputer called Galera with a theoretical computing capacity of 100 TeraFLOPS, one of the highest levels in Poland, and equipped with a KASKADA platform.

KASKADA is a supercomputing platform for the contextual analysis of multimedia data streams to identify specific objects or hazardous events. On the basis of the platform, the Mayday structural project is being carried out as part of the European Union’s Innovative Economy 2007-2013 Operational Program. It concerns the development of advanced IT services and applications under an agreement with Poland’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The project is worth over zl.16 million and funds for it have come from the EU and Polish government coffers.

In order to comprehensively test the capabilities of the platform, when carrying out the project, the programmers chose a variety of applications and functionalities.

According to Krawczyk, the application used by the computer scientists in the Fahrenheit project makes it possible to create digital portraits of people whose real appearance is unknown. “Using existing historical data, such as portraits of relatives or descriptions, our genetic algorithm shows computer images that are likely to resemble the person in question,” Krawczyk said.

To create the digital portrait of Fahrenheit, the scientists used images of relatives and contemporary residents of Gdańsk of a similar background and social status: patricians, scholars and clergy. Materials were made available by the Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the National Museum in Gdańsk.

An important practical advantage of the KASKADA platform is its versatility, which makes it possible to considerably simplify the process of producing applications. The solutions developed by the scientists have attracted the interest of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the National Center for Research and Development. The institutions found KASKADA to be one of the most innovative projects in Poland and undertook to promote it. Preliminary talks are also in progress with IT companies.

Ziółkowski has been working at the TASK Academic Computer Center for three years, helping build and develop the KASKADA platform. As part of the team, he has been writing software to enable the use of the supercomputer, in the Mayday program, for example. His greatest passion is artificial intelligence.

“The Fahrenheit algorithm was a new experience for me, a task all the more difficult since from the beginning my colleagues and I knew that 100-percent faithful reconstruction would be impossible,” says Ziółkowski. “It was therefore necessary to make a selection of a variety of data.”

The starting point was the documentation gathered: portraits of 28 inhabitants of Gdańsk from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and photographs of several members of Fahrenheit’s family. All the people were portrayed in a similar way, making it easier for the computer to process the faces into a uniform format.

This pioneering project also required many practical preparations. The first trials were made using the likenesses of movie stars rather than Fahrenheit’s relatives or friends. “The first impression I had when thinking about a family of famous people similar to one another was associated with the American actor Martin Sheen and his son Charlie Sheen,” says Ziółkowski. “We found a lot of reference material on the internet. So we could design a genetic algorithm that—through a process inspired by the theory of evolution—makes it possible to look for an optimal solution.”

“Our algorithm is still imperfect so it is too early to talk about putting it to a commercial use,” says Ziółkowski. “We want to establish collaboration with geneticists, for example, to jointly identify additional factors that may have an impact on our algorithm. We plan to get a deeper insight into how we can get a better result from our limited input data—a more accurate picture closer to reality. We also hope that the publicity surrounding the Fahrenheit project will help generate interest in not only the work of our center, but the intellectual capabilities of Gdańsk University of Technology employees in general.”

On the basis of the image generated by the programmers, Prof. Piotr Józefowicz from the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts will create a painting of Fahrenheit. The painting will be displayed in the interiors of the Gdańsk University of Technology—either in the Senate Hall or the Rector’s Office.

Robert Kaja, an artist who created a relief of Johannes Hevelius, which is displayed in the southern courtyard of the Gdańsk University of Technology, will now create an allegorical work dedicated to Fahrenheit. The work will be displayed in the window niches in the northern courtyard.

The first niche, divided into two spaces, will be covered by a thick piece of glass on which a chemically etched “drawing” resembling a system of blood vessels will appear. At the bottom, the structure of the crystals that precipitate from water vapor on the glass during cold weather, will be shown. The lines of the blood vessels will be tinted red, and the drawing of the ice crystals will be tinted blue. In the central point of the window, a Fahrenheit thermometer will be featured. In the second niche, a portrait of Fahrenheit will be mounted—made using a relief technique—through the chemical etching and subsequently painting of the steel.
Adam Grzybowski

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was born in Gdańsk in 1686, into a family of merchants. At the age of 15, after the death of his parents, he left the city and went to the Netherlands and subsequently England, where he focused on his work as a scientist and became a member of the British Royal Society. While living abroad, Fahrenheit visited Gdańsk several times, including in 1710 and 1712. He died in The Hague in 1736.

Fahrenheit is known mainly for being the first to use mercury in a temperature measurement instrument (previously, alcohol was used), and creating a scale from zero to 212 degrees. On Fahrenheit’s original scale, the freezing point of brine was zero degrees, and 212 degrees F signified the temperature of boiling water.

Fahrenheit is used in a number of English-speaking countries. Other parts of the world use Celsius, developed in 1742 by Swedish physicist and astronomer Andreas Celsius.
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