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!
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.
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 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.
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.
This photo would blow Isaac Newton’s mind!
Why does anyone care about this?
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.
Circumnavigation was tricky in the 18th C! Imagine going from France to South America without a toilet on your vessel.
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…)
SIR ISAAC NEWTON : BRAIN POWER GIANT
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.
What you don’t know about Newton is that he was one quirky guy!
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.)
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….
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)
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
Today, chemistry as a respectable science– my upcoming book Chemical Reactions!: 25 Projects for Kids is all about cool chemistry w/ projects you can do with materials around the house.
Anyway, chemistry dates back to about 1661. At that time, chemistry was somewhat of an accidental science.
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.
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!
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 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.
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!
Lavoisier proved that a rusting object gains weight! He and his brilliant wife concluded that the metal attracted particles from the air.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Space and Time CAN change!
Einstein finally got the recognition he deserved. The next photo is from a 1927 Physics conference. (I couldn’t work Marie Curie into this post but I’ll point her out below. She won two Nobel Prizes! )
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…
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.
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.
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!