10 Great Scientists and Their Discoveries

Instead of looking back at 2020, (I bet most of us would like kick 2020 to the curb) let’s gaze further back in time. Since this is science blog, I’m giving a nod to 10 great scientists and their discoveries. Many of these scientists had messy lives. Many of the discoveries were accidental. Most of these great scientists are dead.

That means they can’t refute the gossip I’m about to throw around about them! (hurrah!) 

10 GREAT SCIENTISTS and THEIR DISCOVERIES

We can look up the speed of light or the distance to the moon in mere seconds. Even though I like to pretend otherwise when I read sci fi novels or watch a sci fi movie, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. How did scientists figure this out in the first place? Often at a time when there was no running water!

STEM Science Blog astronomy
The moon is 238000 miles away
How do we know the speed of light
Speed of Light 86000 mps

1543 : First Glimmer of Hope : NICOLAUS COPERNICUS

Heck, in 1543, it was heresy to think that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Let’s give a nod to Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. It was in 1543 when he published his theory that the sun is at the center of the solar system with the planets revolving around it. Before that, Ptolemy stated that the Earth was at the center of the universe. 

a great scientist who was wrong
By Pearson Scott Foresman

Ptolemy versus Copernicus

Greatest science achievements copernicus
courtesy Wikimedia

Sure enough, the Catholic Church formally declared that Copernicanism was heresy. (now known as Heliocentrism) Nothing happened to Copernicus because he died 2 years after he published. It took the church 67 years to officially disprove of him.

Copernicus's ideas were popular with scientists and the general public, but theologians pitched a fit.

PLUTO AND FLAT EARTHERS

It’s amazing that in the 21st C, astronomers discover planets around distant stars from a mere wobble or transit (for more on what transits are, see this post) when it wasn’t until 1978 that anyone noticed Pluto had a moon.

Pluto's moon discovered in 1978
Pluto and Charon

EVEN THOUGH FLAT EARTHERS CONTINUE TO REFUTE THE EVIDENCE...

BY THE 5TH C THE GREEKS HAD ALREADY ESTABLISHED THAT EARTH IS A SPHERE

HOW DO FLAT EARTHERS EXPLAIN THIS SPACE JUNK? I DO IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE, CLICK HERE

So now we know that the earth revolves around the sun. The next question that plagued people…

HOW BIG IS THE EARTH?

 Fast forward to the first half of the 18th century. 

Many people wanted to understand the earth, how big it was, where it hung in space, how it came to be. Although they knew it was a sphere, (except for the flat earthers) they didn’t know how big the sphere was.

How Big is Earth
This pic would blow Isaac Newton's mind (NASA)

Why does anyone care about this?

These details don't seem like a big deal, but in the 18th C, details made a difference in circumnavigating the globe.
People back then couldn't hop on a plane, after all.
Think about it...
No one would want to get lost at sea in what was essentially a sailboat w/ no toilet.
No dramamine, either!
This ship has toilets
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In 1735, The French Academy of Sciences sent out expeditions to answer one of great questions at that time; what is the earth’s circumference? They sent scientists to the equator.

how big is the earth
Circumnavigation was tricky in the 18th C
Greatest scientists of all time
France to South America in the ship with no toilet

WHY THE ANDES?

Why, you ask, did a bunch of French guys need to go to the Andes to measure the earth when they could do so in their own backyard? The Quito officials in what is now Ecuador wondered this too. The team was met with deep suspicion whenever they went, which caused all manner of troubles. It was because of Sir Isaac Newton. (No one in Ecuador found this a compelling argument either…)

HOW BIG IS EARTH
Tackling the Andes in 1735?

SIR ISAAC NEWTON : BRAIN POWER GIANT

famous scientists Isaac Newton stuck a needle in his eye
Sir Isaac Newton
10 Great Scientists and Their Discoveries
Sir Louie Koch

You know Newton. He’s the gravity guy. He definitely makes the top 10 great scientists and their discoveries list. (Actually, he wrote the Three Laws of Motion, a brilliant achievement for anyone at any time.)

Recap below. Paraphrased, not in the original Latin.

Newton's Laws are still used in classical mechanics today.
# 1 : A thing moves in the direction in which it is pushed and will keep moving in a straight line until some other force acts to slow or deflect it.
# 2 : When a force acts on an object, it will cause the object to accelerate.
F=m*a
# 3 : Every action has an opposite and equal reaction
For more click here
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What you don’t know about Newton is that he was one quirky guy!

He once stared at the sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect, if any, it would have on his vision.
Miraculously, his eyes escaped lasting damage.
He also stuck a needle in his eye. Why?
Because in the 18th C, people weren’t sure if eyes were responsible for collecting light or creating it. (yes, really)
When his college sent their students home because of the plague, (which we have experienced firsthand in 2020 w our pandemic) he invented calculus because he was bored.
Newton didn’t have youtube videos or reruns of The Office to numb his brain!
Newton didn’t share his calculus invention for decades.
When a German mathematician Gottfried von Leibniz announced his new invention calculus, the two of them fought about who should get the credit for a few more decades.
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An analysis of a strand of Newton’s hair in the 1970s found it contained mercury at 40 times the natural level.  Perhaps this partially explains his quirks?)

Watching reruns is safer than experimenting with poisonous compounds! (Although Joey looks pale. Maybe he’s experimenting between takes.)

great scientific advances
Reruns are safer than experimenting with mercury

EXPEDITIONS FULL OF PROBLEMS

Back to the reason that expedition went to the Andes. According to Newton, the centrifugal force of the Earth’s spin should result in a slight flattening at the poles and a bulging at the equator. That means the length of a degree would shorten as you moved away from the equator.

Are you rolling your eyes now? Think about it. These people spent a year on a boat to get from Europe to South America, instead of a day on a plane, so it mattered to them! All we need to worry about is whether or not the line at Starbucks will be too long to so we can grab a latte between connections!

A few of their issues….

Work permits were hard to come by, often revoked.
The visitors provoked the locals and were chased out of town by a mob throwing stones.
The expedition’s doctor was murdered in a misunderstanding over a woman.
The botanist lost his mind.
Maybe he was overwhelmed by the flora?
One of the men in charge ran off with a thirteen-year-old girl and refused to return.
They faced challenging jungles and rivers, and that was before the challenging mountains.
All this, to take measurements at the equator, to see if Newton was right.
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LA CONDAMINE and BOUGUER

The expedition  was led by astronomers Pierre Bouguer and mathematician Charles Marie d La Condamine.

A few years prior, La Condamine had exploited a loophole in the French government’s lottery and had money to burn.

Bourguer detected an error in La Condamine’s measurements, which La Condamine refused to acknowledge. They stopped speaking. Traveled separately from then on. 

Later, after Bourgeur died, this enabled La Condamine to receive most of the credit for the expedition. (I bet he was happy about that)

Famous discoveries in science La Condamine and his mess of an expedition
La Condamine
Greatest scientists and their discoveries
La Louie, who is nicer than La Condamine was

HOW DID THEY MEASURE, ANYWAY?

Via TRIANGULATION...yes, it's geometry which I find annoying because this is so useful and who ever likes geometry?

Triangulation is a proven geographic technique to measure distance. If one knows the length of one side of a triangle, and the angles of two corners, one can calculate all the other dimensions!

To read more, click here

They did prove that Newton was right. A degree is longer near the poles than at northern latitudes. It would only take you ten seconds to look this up online—depending on your wifi connection—but it took them ten years! Their measurements stand the test of time today! Hubris aside, these guys were remarkable. 

Let’s shrink things down and look at a few great scientists who discovered what makes up our Earth.

FAMOUS DISCOVERIES IN CHEMISTRY

Chemistry as a respectable science– my upcoming book is about cool chemical reactions! — dates back to about 1661. At that time, chemistry was somewhat of an accidental science.

Famous accidental discoveries in chemistry
Accident waiting to happen

HENNIG BRAND COULD HANDLE BAD SMELLS

So when a guy named Hennig Brand, perhaps because urine was yellow, decided he could condense urine into gold, people weren’t put off by the theory.

famous discoveries in chemistry Hennig experimented with urine
Hennig Brand...I imagine that his robe must have caught fire more than once.

After he’d collected (eww) and condensed (eww) fifty buckets of urine (I’m queasy thinking about it) a strange thing happened. His noxious, disgusting paste burst into flame!

Enter phosphorus! An element that reacts with oxygen to produce flames.

Because of the labor involved in boiling down urine, at the time phosphorus was worth more than gold!

Phosphorus

So in a way, Brand did find his gold!

50 years later, phosphorus had made its way into matches, fertilizer, and bombs.

CARL SHEELE COULD ALSO HANDLE BAD SMELLS

I’m not sure who had more muted olfactory sense, Brand or our next great scientist, Carl Sheele. (If you want to get away from this grossness and read about our sense of taste and see nice food pics, click on the link!)

A pharmacist, Sheele devised a way to produce phosphorus without urine! He was interested in noxious–and often, poisonous compounds! 

SHEELE DISCOVERED OXYGEN!
So did a man named Joseph Priestly.
Sheele called oxygen ‘fire air’ which is not catchy
There were a lot of discoveries of elements back then, and a lot of rushing to get papers published, and fighting over credit.
He discovered chlorine by heating several different and dangerous acids.
Go bleach!
more about chlorine here
SHEELE IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF MODERN ORGANIC CHEMISTRY
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Sheele had a significant flaw. He liked to taste all of his compounds. (yes, really) As a result of this quirk, he was found dead over his workbench in 1786. Aged 43.

Sheele wasn’t the only great scientist to end his life on a tragic note.

Make Sense of Science_Oxygen burns
Please don't put any more wigs on me

LAVOISIER LOST HIS HEAD

It was Antoine Lavoisier who brought chemistry to the modern age. In 1768, he bought shares in a despicable company that only taxed who they wanted and somehow managed to get away with it. This afforded him a lot of income. At his peak, his personal earnings equated to 20 million/year!

great scientists and their discoveries
Lavoisier was a rich guy. I am taking a photo of a dollar bill. Enough said.
Next, Lavoisier married the 14-year-old daughter of one of his bosses.
Apparently, she was bright and interested in science.
Marie-Anne Pierrette Lavoisier
Lavoisier's brainy wife used to translate science books into French for her husband, so he could understand them.
He gets all the credit, but with his brainy wife & an amazing laboratory, he was able to identify oxygen for what it really was
(Not fire-air)
He gave hydrogen its name
He showed that matter can be transformed but not eliminated.
THIS WAS HUGE!
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Lavoisier proved that a rusting object gains weight! He and his brilliant wife concluded that the metal attracted particles from the air.

Matter can be transformed bot not eliminated
Experiment from my book, Chemical Reactions!

Actually, Lavoisier wasn’t a bad guy, though somewhat flippant and insensitive. He borrowed Priestly’s distillation methods. (Priestly was angry. He didn’t get credit for oxygen, either!) 

In 1780, Lavoisier made dismissive comments about a young chemist and his theories. The theories were incorrect, but the young chemist –named Marat– held a grudge.

In 1793, during the French Reign of Terror, because Lavoisier was part of French elite, Lavoisier was arrested.
Guess who was a member of the tribunal?
YES! Marat, the grudge-holder
Lavoisier was guillotined seven months after Marie Antoinette.
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What about Marat, you ask? 

He was murdered in his bath by a young woman named Charlotte Corday. Soon after, she was guillotined for killing him.

Charlotte_Corday_Mudered Marat
This doesn't look like a bathtub

Living in France in 1793?  Not good! (read a Tale of Two Cities for more horrors about the Reign of Terror.)

Oh! Lavoisier’s wife lived. She remarried. Maybe her second husband kept his head.

DMITRI MENDELEEV

Let’s get out of France! 

I must mention one of the most important discoveries in chemistry, made by a man with a fantastic mother! When Dmitri Mendeleev‘s father (headmaster of a local school) went blind, his mother began work in a factory, where she became the manager.  The factory eventually burned down, but she wanted her high school son –Dimitri, and the youngest of FOURTEEN— to get an education. She walked with Dmitri for 4000 miles, depositing him in a school in St. Petersburg. (She died soon after.)

Life wasn’t kind in Russia in the 19th C. either. 

 By now, many more elements had been extracted and distilled and exploded into existence. (Okay, they always existed but now we knew about them.) Misconceptions abounded, however. No one knew how to properly catalogue anything.

Greastest scientists of all time Dimitri Mendeleev Periodic Table Guy
I've run out of wigs for Louie. This is Mendeleev
At this time, chemists were using their own symbols and abbreviations.
Chemistry was a mess, like Mendeleev's beard.
Mendeleev, now a professor at U of St. Petersburg, wrote each of the 63 elements (now we have 120!) down on a card and started arranging them this way and that.
He noticed that they could be arranged, not just by atomic mass but also by their chemical properties!
He left gaps where he figured elements would eventually be discovered. He was right.
Another chemist, John Newlands had suggested the same thing 30 years prior.
Newlands made an analogy about octaves and music.
Plus, his theory had flaws.
When he was presenting at symposiums, people would ask him to hum.
Okay, I made that up.
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Humming or not, Newlands missed out. Mendeleev is credited with creation of the first periodic table, one of the most important discoveries in chemistry.

We better move on to the 20th C and physics! Don’t groan, it’s cool, too.

EINSTEIN OF COURSE

Greatest scientists and their discoveries
Not a wig on Einstein
greatest scientists of all time
OK, one more wig

Most of the early days of chemistry (as you saw above) were about inorganic substances, meaning not associated with living things.

And to summarize a whole lot of cool advances in chemistry in a paragraph, the existence of the elements and their relationships—how they make compounds that we find on earth, was key to the theory of atoms. All these rules of reactions, summarized in the periodic table devised by Mendeleev, is ultimately explained by quantum mechanics. So. Theoretical Chemistry is in fact, physics!

 

And no one can talk about physics with bringing up …. Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein transformed physics and astronomy during the 20th century, superseding the 200-year-old theory of mechanics created by our quirky, mercury-laden man Newton.
Einstein had no affiliation with a university like Mendeleev or access to a laboratory like Lavoisier. In other words, he was a nobody working in a patent office.
In 1905, Einstein quietly published four papers. One showed that energy waiting to be released and energy being released are the same thing.
Meaning there is a lot of potential energy in every living thing, including you and me, just trapped in there.
This explained how stars could burn for billions of years without racing through their fuel.
(converting mass to energy.)
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The scientific community being what it is, his theories were not well received.
Einstein applied for a position at a university.
They didn't want him.
He tried to get a job as a high school science teacher.
No go.
Einstein stayed at the patent office.
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AFTER WWI, EINSTEIN'S THEORIES DREW SOME ATTENTION
THE NEW YORK TIMES SENT A REPORTER TO INTERVIEW EINSTEIN
They sent the golf reporter. He got EVERYTHING wrong. But Einstein's theories were mind-blowing...
EINSTEIN CHANGED CONCEPTS!
WHAT WE THOUGHT WOULD NEVER CHANGE, ACTUALLY COULD CHANGE
Gravity and mass actually change as the observer moves
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Imagine you are in a rainstorm.The wind is blowing against your back. If you started running, the rain wouldn’t hit your back as hard. It would be travelling slower compared to you. (Scientists would say that the rain was travelling slower relative to you.) If you turned around and ran toward the rain, it would hit you even harder than if you stood still. (Scientists would say that the rain was moving faster relative to you.)

Einstein proved that space and time are not constant.

Only the speed of light stays the same.

Space and Time change!

Einstein finally got the recognition he deserved. Pic on the right is from a 1927 Physics conference. (I couldn’t work Marie Curie into this post but I’ll point her out here. She won two Nobel Prizes! )

Famous scientists
Marie Curie is second from the left, front row. Einstein fourth from the left, front row!

Einstein made one big mistake….

HENRIETTA SWAN LEAVITT and THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE

An astronomer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt  discovered how to measure the universe, and in a stuffy little workroom at The Harvard Observatory!

Einstein calls this his greatest blunder, not to have realized that the universe is expanding! 

I’ll explain in the slide show below…

Harvard Computers in 1912
Henrietta Swan Leavitt wasn't allowed out of this room
In 1912, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, working only with smudgy photographic plates of star photos, discovered a certain class of stars that fluctuate in brightness.
No telescope time for women allowed.
Cepheid variables
She figured out that they burn their remaining fuel in a way that produces reliable brightening and dimming. (Polaris is a cepheid variable!)
She was able to work out where they were in relation to each other!
Her boss Edward Pickering took her findings and published a paper, claiming ‘right of superiority.’
(Jerk...he called the women his HARVARD COMPUTERS)
When Harlow Shapley built on her discovery six years later to calculate the size of the Milky Way, he barely mentioned Leavitt.
This allowed Edwin Hubble to piggy back on Leavitt’s genius and discover how far galaxies were from each other.
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Henrietta Swan Leavitt should have won a Nobel Prize! She was promoted to head of the Harvard College Observatory in 1921, but died later that same year of cancer. And since Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, she can never receive one.

Hubble fought hard to win a Nobel prize for proving that the universe is expanding, but at the time, astronomy was not considered a science, so no prizes for those guys. I don’t think he should have gotten one. He’s got that cool telescope named after him.

Thanks to Leavitt, we now knew that the universe was expanding. Einstein was humbled and admitted his embarrassment. Pickering, Shapley, and Hubble don’t get their names in bold because, well, you can extrapolate why.

Next question scientists wanted to answer.

WHEN DID THE UNIVERSE BEGIN? : THE BIG BANG THEORY!

The proof for the expanding universe theory didn’t come for decades. In fact, two guys Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, put the seal of approval on the Big Bang Theory and they weren’t even trying.

Famous discoveries in astronomy
Penzias and Wilson
Penzias and Arnold didn’t care about the expansion of the universe, nor were they looking for this proof.
They were actually trying to get rid of ‘an annoying hiss’ in their radio equipment.
Unknown to them, a bunch of Princeton researchers ended up pretty ticked off because they’d been trying hard to find the very background noise these two guys couldn’t get rid of.
They found background cosmic microwaves or radiation that is—as you’re reading this—still on the move.
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The radiation noise Penzias and Wilson found proves that galaxies are expanding. This faint microwave noise is remnant radiation from a time when the universe was vastly denser and hotter than now.

Currently, astronomers calculate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

 

famous scientists Penzias Nobel Prize by accident
Yes, they won a Nobel Prize in 1978

ATOMS FOR ANOTHER POST

I wanted to discuss atoms but ended up with our expanding universe and an expanding post. Another time!

Now that we’ve taken a look back at a 10 great scientists and their discoveries– accidental, unrecognized in their lifetime, or stolen– and you’ve allowed me to poke fun at few of them,  let’s all do amazing things in 2021!

10 great scientists and their discoveries
Tough crowd... I don't know about your posse but I need to exert some effort!

You can start doing amazing things by feeding your brain!

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60 thoughts on “10 Great Scientists and Their Discoveries”

  1. Youi provided a lot of important and complicated information in an easy to read and light-hearted manner. Great job.

    Reply
  2. This is such a great post – it’s so informative! I’m familiar with all these discoveries but it was so great to understand them all on a deeper level! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Informative as always, but this might be your funniest post so far. Who knew you could write so entertainingly about some old scientist dudes. Great job.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the walk back in time Sue! I didn’t realize newton was such a strange guy. Mercury poisoning huh? Wasn’t that what made all the hatters mad back in the day? Thanks for sharing the knowledge, and happy new years!

    Reply
  5. I absolutely loved reading this! You did a great job at breaking down complicated information in such an easy to understand way. Thanks for sharing! I hope you have a happy and healthy new year! 🙂

    Reply
  6. This post was such an interesting read. I just learnt a lot from it. Great job of simplifying really complex information and making it easy to digest for us un-scientific types.

    Gemma, This Brits Life

    Reply
  7. Enjoyed this post! It was both interesting and humorous. And Louie deserves a treat for being so patient with the wigs. 🙂

    Reply
  8. As usual, I learned a lot of interesting facts from your post. My favorite was the urine to gold experiment. Science is fun.

    Reply
  9. Such an interesting post – I really enjoyed reading this. The urine to gold experiment was certainly one of my favourites. Feels like I’ve just had a science lesson, but an incredibly enjoyable one so thank you 😀

    Reply
    • I didn’t want this to get too didactic, the post has a lot of theoretical concepts. I figured if anyone wanted, they could skim past the slides! ha Glad you found this one enjoyable. Thanks so much!

      Reply

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Susan Berk Koch author
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