this date in science history

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

Born February 12, 1809, Charles Darwin revolutionized science and the culture around it.  On 24 November 1859 Charles Darwin published his monumental work On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, changing the face of biology. Although he only used the word once at the very end of the book, the word evolve (and evolution) is synonymous with Darwin. The word evolve had been used in a scientific sense specifically in biology for over a hundred years before Darwin wrote Origin of Species-which is one reason why he avoided it. By the mid 1850s, the word had connotations of perfectibility-something Darwin wanted to avoid. It was the last sentence of his book:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The word evolution arrived in English in 1620 and comes from the Latin word evolutionem(nomnative form evolutio) meaning the unrolling of a book or revealing that which was rolled up. The word evolve arrived a bit later in the 1640s from the Latin word evolvere meaning to unroll and could also pertain to other ‘hidden’ things (see also for example the etymology of vulva), but mostly meant books, when a ‘volume’ was a rolled up manuscript made from vellum. The modern meaning that scientists such ad Darwin meant for it began around 1832 and reached its first full expression in Darwin’s work.

Happy Birthday to Charles Darwin, born on this day, 1809.  

A California Redwood’s Tree Lifetime.

Here is a photo taken of a California Redwood tree cut down in the late 1800s. Superimposed over the trunk, a graphic compares the timeline of the tree’s rings as they coincide with events in human history, showing that this single tree was alive for the majority of recorded history.

Andrew Carnegie reading in library.

Carnegie donated $300,000 to build Washington, D.C.’s oldest library — a beautiful beaux arts building that dates back to 1903. Inscribed above the doorway are the words: Science, Poetry, History. The building was “dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge.” It opened in 1903 to women, children, all races — African-Americans remember when it was the only place downtown where they could use the bathrooms. During the Depression, D.C.’s Carnegie Library was called “the intellectual breadline.”

The Challenger Disaster, 30 years later

Please stop in your day and take a moment to remember the Crew of STS-51L, who all perished on this day, January 28, 1986.  Pictured here, the crew pose for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.  The shuttle they flew was called the Challenger: a challenger was someone who defied expectations, who disputed what could be done or what was known, who attempted a difficult task or problem.  These seven people did not see space as an empty void but rather as the next step in a series of steps ever upward, ad astra.  It was for them not a challenge at all but a privilege to fly, and they did so willingly, hopefully, happily, taking all of our hopes and dreams with them.  I watched this launch live with my high school science teacher Terry Uselton (who had applied for the Teacher in Space program) and remember both the excitement and promise that morning and the horrible aftermath.  

To these seven people and their families, I say thank you for daring to challenge us all with your determination and bravery.  And to the tens of thousands at NASA and its contractors and affiliates around the world, I say thank you for devoting your lives to science to make my life and world better.  And to Terry Uselton, thanks, Teach, I’m still working in my own way on science!

Image courtesy NASA, in the public domain.

Dolly at 20

Twenty years ago today on February 22, 1997,  Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell and colleagues at the Roslin Institute, announced the existence of a 7 month old sheep named Dolly, the product of cloning.  She was cloned using and adult cell and born on July, 5, 1996 and raised under the auspices of the UK Ministry of Agriculture and Scottish company PPL Therapeutics.  A Dorset Finn sheep, Dolly lived for six and half years before she was euthanized due to illness.  Dolly was created with a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, in which a donor cell (in this case and adult cell from another sheep) has the nucleus removed that is then transfered into an unfertilized egg cell (an oocyte) which in turn has had its cell nucleus removed to make way for the donor nucleus.  The host cell is then stimulated and implanted into a host sheep for gestation.  Although other animals had been cloned before Dolly, Dolly is celebrated as the first ‘clone’ because her donor cell came from an adult cell. 

The word clone entered English as a noun used in botany in 1903 from the Ancient Greek word klon (κλον) meaning a twig or spray, related to klados (κλαδος) meaning a sprout, young offshoot, branch.  Botanists used the word to describe the results of the techique of grafting a shoot of one plant or tree onto another.  The word clone (verb) wasn’t used until 1959, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that clone was used in connnection with animals and humans.  Since Dolly, scientists have successfully cloned many other animals, including pigs, horses, goats, and deer.  

Image of ‘v’ graft courtesy ghadjikyriacou, via flickr, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.


Happy Flux Capacitor Day!

“Here’s a red-letter date in the history of science: November 5, 1955. Yes! Of course! November 5, 1955! That was the day I invented time-travel. I remember it vividly. I was standing on the edge of my toilet hanging a clock, the porcelain was wet, I slipped, hit my head on the sink, and when I came to I had a revelation! A vision! A picture in my head! A picture of this! This is what makes time travel possible: the flux capacitor! It’s taken me nearly thirty years and my entire family fortune to realize the vision of that day. My God, has it been that long?”

- Doc Emmett Lathrop Brown, Back To the Future

Happy Birthday Carl Sagan!!!

Few people are as connected with a number as thoroughly as Carl Sagan is connected with the word billion.  The word (and concept) of billion is relatively new to human thought.  Sure the Ancient Greeks were predicting and naming numbers far larger than a billion, but in popular use the concepts of million and billion are relatively new to human history. A billion was just a really big number-very hard to imagine in real terms, an abstract notion that for most meant something like ‘too much to count’.  Etymologically, billion is a fabrication, a 15th century combination of the prefix bi- and the word million, itself a modern word.  Coming to English in the 1680s, from French mathematician Nicolas Chuquet who named a million million a byllion in his unpublished work Le Triparty en la Science des Nombres from 1484.  In England and Germany numbers were compiled in groups of sixes, later altered by the French into groups of three and becoming a thousand million, which is its current US meaning.  Chuquet was interested in naming huge numbers and devised the system of grouping by sixes, summarizing it this way starting with:

million, the second mark byllion, the third mark tryllion, the fourth quadrillion, the fifth quyillion, the sixth sixlion, the seventh septyllion, the eighth ottyllion, the ninth nonyllion and so on with others as far as you wish to go…

Carl Sagan made the notion and number both popular and accessible describing the size of the universe and the number of stars and galaxies in it.  Although famous for the phrase ’billions and billions’, it wasn’t a phrase that Sagan had used by the time he became both known and parodied for it.  He later embraced it as a calling card, opening speeches and presentations with his signature ‘quote’.  A billion can be visualized as a cube of marbles 1000 marbles high 1000 marbles wide and 1000 marbles deep.  This cube would be approximately 40 feet to a side-and weigh many many tons.  

On October 31, 2011 the world population was estimated to have reached 7 billion, adding one billion people in just 42 years.

Hubble and the Edge of the Universe

On December 30, 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope completed the series of 342 images that were rendered in to the Hubble Deep Field View, (pictured above top right) perhaps the most astonishing and humbling scientific achievement made by humans in the field of space science. The area for the Deep Field View was chosen as one of the ‘darkest’ spots in the sky:  imagine holding a grain of sand at arms length or a viewing a tennis ball at 100 meters, and looking in the direction of the darkest, least populated portions of the night sky.  The total area is equivalent to  one twenty four millionth of the total night sky.  There were many skeptics when the Deep Field View was first proposed-many assumed that the this portion of ‘dark sky’ would show that in fact there are portions of ‘dark sky’ from our vantage point.  Most of the three thousand or so images in the Deep Field View are in fact entire galaxies and form some of the oldest and farthest structures ever seen, with only 20 or so nearer stars.  Few images hint at the immensity or complexity of our universe as much as this image.

In addition to its day to day duties, Hubble has returned to its deep field views several times, with the Deep Field View South (pictured above top right) a couple years later, the 2004 Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and later refined as the Hubble Extreme Deep Field of 2012.  Named for American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble  (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953), the Hubble Space Telescope continues to work in Edwin Hubble’s field of deep cosmological inquiry and extra-galactic astronomy.  Despite early problems including a dramatic in-space repair mission, the Hubble has been sending back pictures and data of every corner of the universe, making it one of the most important scientific tools every created.  

The Hubble Deep Field, the Hubble Space Telescope as seen from Atlantis Space Shuttle, and the rendering of the Hubble making the DFV, all courtesy NASA/Hubble.

The Race to find Neptune

400 years ago, a great arms race began in the scientific community: using the newly developed technology afforded by the telescope, astronomers and natural scientists stayed up night after night training their new instruments on the sky. Few were as prolific or as careful (or talented) as Galileo Galilei who 404 years ago first saw the planet Neptune through a telescope on the night of December 28, 1612.

The telescope was immediately recognized as the most significant technological revolution in astronomy. Galileo noted the object but failed to recognize its significance, and Neptune disappeared for another 234 years, when it was predicted by French astronomer Urbain LeVerrier. A second arms race began when English, French and German scientists all raced to find the planet predicted by the perturbations in Uranus’ orbit. By this time the telescope was in regular use by both scientists and talented amateurs around the world as scientists stayed up night after night searching for discoveries.

The prediction of a new planet was soon confirmed by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle just one year after he finished his Ph.d dissertation which he had sent to LeVerrier for comments. Galle found Neptune first on September 23, 1846, though James Challis had both spotted it and noted it but failed to recognize it as a planet due to using outdated star maps. A minor battle then ensued when LeVerrier suggested the name Leverrier for the new planet-and had English astronomers immediately insist that the recently discovered Uranus be named Herschel after its discoverer, the Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel, who for his part wanted to call Uranus after his patron King George III of England. Galle first proposed Janus (the Roman two-faced god) and Challis proposed Oceanus. Ultimately consensus was found by continuing with the theme of naming planets after Greek and Roman gods, as the west had done since antiquity, and the planet was named Neptune. Irregularities in Neptune’s orbit led to a third race to discover any satellites that might be orbiting, and 17 days later Neptune’s first moon was discovered by amateur English astronomer and beer magnate William Lassell on October 10, 1846 and named Triton.

Neptune’s next two moons were discovered in the 1940s but it wasn’t until the Voyager spacecraft passed Neptune that an additional 5 moons were found. Neptune now has 14 recognized satellites, the most recent of which remains un-named, first spotted in 2004.

Images of Neptune and the Great Dark Spot and all moons courtesy NASA, all other images in the public domain.

Apollo 13 and the Successful Failure

Much has been written about how NASA ensures the safety and efficiency of its missions, with every single nut and bolt on every single space craft examined and re-examined exhaustively.  This dedication to detail has meant many millions and millions of miles of safe travels in space, for astronauts as well as spacecraft.  When failures happen, they are as often as not caused by the sheer difficulty and dangerousness of the task at hand.  Going into space, or to the moon or another planet or asteroid is hard, really hard.  Few ‘failures’ exemplify the attention to detail that NASA puts on missions as much as Apollo 13.  

On April 11, 1970 at 19:13 UTC, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission, carrying Commander James Lovell, Command Module Pilot John L. “Jack” Swigart and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise.  A seemingly perfect launch was marred by the catastrophic failure of an oxygen tank 55 hours into the flight and the Lunar Landing was aborted as NASA then focused on returning the now crippled spacecraft safely to earth.  Vibrations and cavitation of various systems caused system shutdowns and eventually the explosion.  The explosion meant no oxygen reserves, damage to power and carbon dioxide scrubbers, leading to loss of heat and drinkable water.  The crew had just finished a live television broadcast at just over 205,000 miles from Earth.  Lovell was still putting away the television camera when the crew heard a loud bang.  Minutes later, Lovell uttered what may be the second most famous sentence uttered in space (after ‘the eagle has landed…’) when he radioed Houston to say, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”  NASA went to work to analyse and solve the problem and after much drama the astronauts returned to earth cold, thirsty and exhausted on April 17, 1970.  

Not long after the Gemini program was announced along with the first seven Astronauts (see my post from April 9), NASA announced the Apollo program in July 1960.  Originally conceived as missions to the Moon, President John F. Kennedy announced his ambition to Congress on May 25, 1961 to place a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, and the Apollo program changed its mission.  It was Abe Silverstein, Director of Space Flight Development who proposed the name Apollo, following the tradition established naming Mercury after a figure in Ancient Greek mythology.  Apollo (Ancient Greek Άπόλλων) was the god of archery, music and poetry, often depicted in his horse drawn golden chariot shooting across the sky.  NASA approved the name suggested by Silverstein (who compared naming the program to naming a baby) and announced Project Apollo to the public on July 28, 1960.  Kennedy’s announcement meant changes to the program, notably the addition of the Lunar modules, but Apollo was underway.

The Apollo 13 failures have long been considered the defining moment of ‘successful failure’ within NASA.  Despite the massive on-board failures, the ground based engineers and astronauts were able to configure a solution to rescue the damaged spacecraft-utilizing the massively redundant systems and safety protocols designed into the space craft.  

NASA succeeds because they prepare for every possible scenario, and even have backup and redundancy that will help them and their missions make it through scenarios that they have not prepared for.  Take another look at the crew photo above:  see the sextant?  For hundreds of years sailors and explorers used a sextant and astronomical chart as a means of navigation.  Today, the United States Naval Academy is teaching ancient navigation methods again, so that in the event of a cyber attack or failure, naval officers will still be able to navigate their giant ships and air craft.  It might seem odd that a billion dollar air craft tanker would use ancient navigational techniques familiar to Francis Drake-or it might seem like an amazingly bright sense of prudence and preparation.  The business lesson here is simple:  preparation for any task is never wasted.


Carl Linneaus, the father of Taxonomy

Born on May 23, 1707, Carl Linnaeus would rise to such a level of greatness that the philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau once said “Tell him I know no greater man on earth,” and was heralded by many of his contemporaries and apostles as Princeps botanicorum - the Prince of Botany. This praise was not without merit: he’s the reason we name almost everything in biology the way that we do. Prior to Linnaeus, the science dealing with naming, organizing, and classifying organisms, called taxonomy, was a disorganized and confusingly complex mess. The word taxonomy is derived from an irregularly-conjugated Ancient Greek word taxis which means arrangement, and the Ancient Greek suffix -nomia, derived from the Ancient Greek wordnemein (νεμειν), meaning to manage.

Linnaeus had a passion for botany, and while he went to school to study medicine, his long-term goals always included learning about plants. At 25, he won a grant to travel to Lapland and document the local flora and fauna. While there, he began to classify the flowers he found with what we now know as the bionomial classification system - from the Latin bi, meaning two, andnominus meaning name. Prior to this system, species were given long, many-worded descriptive names, and there were several competing outlines for classifying plants and animals into groups, none of which were particularly accurate or helpful to a scientist not intimate with the specific branch of biology the outline was designed for.

The binomial classification system uses two identifiers for a species - the “generic name” (also known as its genus), and the “specific” name (also known as the species). Linnaeus introduced this system in his book Systema naturae, first published in 1735. Even though the first edition was basic and just twelve pages long, it introduced to the scientific community a system that was simple, understandable, easy to remember, and easy to add new species to. Throughout his life, Linnaeus and his apostles continued work on Systema naturae, and by its 10th Edition in 1758, it classified over 4400 species of animals, and 7700 species of plants.

As always, open this site in a new page to see related content and links!

Image of Carl Linneaus in the public domain.

Image of the title page of Linnaeus’ thesis Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum on plant sexual reproduction, written when he was a 21 year old first year student at Uppsala University that launched his career. Within a year of this thesis, Linnaus was lecturing to massive classrooms of 300 or more students-while still a student himself!

Guest post by Arallyn, a humanoid from the third rock from the sun who is fascinated by science and who runs the fantastic blog when she isn’t filling her mind with scientific trivia. Check out and share her cool blog-she has a great eye! Someday she will be curating major museums and you will say you remember reading her awesome blogs.

Jurassic World, Here We Come!

The Quagga is an extinct species of zebra that lived in South Africa.  Thirty two years ago today on June 4, 1984 scientists were able to clone the DNA sequence of the quagga.  The name comes from the sound the quagga makes when startled or scared, an onomatopoeic name transliterated from the bark made by the quagga by the Dutch as kwahaah or cuacha, rendered now as quagga.  South Africans pronounce it  KWAH-ha, and this is considered the correct pronounciation in English and other languages.  

Image of a quagga in the London Regent’s Park Zoo, 1870, by Frederick York.  

The Invention of the LASER

It is easy to forget that LASER is an acronym as they are so ubiquitous and downright commonplace these days.  But on May 16, 1960, Theodore Harold Maiman operated the first laser, utilizing a synthetic ruby crystal grown by his colleague Dr. Ralph L. Hutcheson.  A race had been underway in the scientific community for more than a decade to develop such a device, starting first with masers before moving on to lasers.

The word LASER is an acronym (the first acronym to appear on this blog) and stands for light amplification by stimulated emmission of radiation.  When the laser (and maser-microwave amplification by stimulated emmission of radiation) was first developed it was know as a solution looking for a problem.  Scientists and engineers saw incredible potential for such a device, and now lasers are ubiquitous and range in size from smaller than the head of a pin to the size of football fields.  Lasers can be found in cd and dvd players, fingerprint readers, bar-code scanners, in medicine as a replacement for scalpels, in printers, dermatology, welding and cutting and even rock concerts and kids shows.  Lasers are in every grocery store and gas station, they monitor speed on highways, they measure the movement of the earth and depth of the ocean.  They have really far surpassed their early theoretical promise.

Image of an early ruby laser Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.