Physics

Top 10 science anniversaries to celebrate in 2021

Centuries from now, 2021 will be celebrated as an anniversary year most noted for getting rid of 2020. It will be less remembered as a year featuring a diverse roster of scientific anniversaries, ranging from the 1300th birthday of a prolific writer to the 25th birthday of a celebrity sheep.

Nevertheless, before too much of 2021 passes by, it’s time to name the Top 10 anniversaries worthy of celebration this year — some obscure, some fairly famous, and one that had an unfair advantage helping to make it No. 1.

10. Elizabeth Blackwell, 200th birthday

Born in England in 1821, Blackwell moved with her family to New York in 1832 and a few years later to Ohio, where she became a teacher in a boarding school. After the death of a close friend she began applying to medical schools, acquiring a bunch of rejections until Geneva College sent her an acceptance letter (apparently the faculty sought input from the school’s students, and they voted to accept her as a joke). But she showed up and the college honored its agreement; she became America’s first licensed woman medical doctor. She went to Europe for two years for advanced medical training and returned to the United States and opened a clinic in New York City to serve poor women and children. Eventually, she established a medical college specifically for women before returning to England to practice medicine there. She died in 1910.

9. Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 1,300th birthday

OK, this one is a little shaky, because 721 is just the internet’s best guess for Jabir’s birth year. Besides that, there is some question in the science history literature about whether this guy even actually existed. Nevertheless, he is pretty famous, supposedly having authored thousands of books, focusing on alchemy but also exploring astronomy and astrology, medicine, cosmology and a lot of other fields of early medieval science. He developed many chemical processes useful for metallurgy, dyes, glassmaking and medicine, among other applications.

Experts agree that Jabir could not have written all the books attributed to him; some in fact seem to have been written much later than the time of his death in about 815. It may even be that he was a collective group of authors choosing to write under one name. And his Latinized name, Geber, has been a source of some confusion since a 13th century writer chose that as a pseudonym for writing alchemical treatises.

In any case, the original Jabir, if he existed, was certainly one of his age’s brightest minds. He is considered by some to deserve the title of father of chemistry (at least in the Arabic-speaking world) and also a founder of modern pharmacy. Because one of his books was written in an incomprehensible code, some have thought the word gibberish was derived from Jabir. But modern language experts say that the idea that gibberish comes from Jabir is balderdash.

8. Rosalyn Yalow, 100th birthday

Yalow, born Rosalyn Sussman, described herself as a “stubborn, determined child” and an avid reader who developed an interest in math and chemistry. In college, she was captivated by physics, and she earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1945. After some time teaching, she turned her research —developing the use of radioactive isotopes for precise measurements of biological chemicals in the body — from hormones and enzymes to vitamins and viruses. That work won her a share of the 1977 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. The year before, she was awarded the Lasker Prize for medical research — the first nuclear physicist to receive that honor. She died in 2011.

7. Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz, centennial of death

WaldeyerHartz, born in 1836, was a German anatomist, famed in his day as an outstanding teacher and lecturer. He made numerous contributions to the understanding of human anatomy and the terminology for describing it (although some of his anatomical conclusions turned out to be erroneous).

His most noteworthy coinages were chromosome, for the structures containing DNA in the cell’s nucleus, and neuron for nerve cells. He named chromosomes in 1888, before their exact nature was well-known. Similarly, he introduced the term neuron before scientists had even reached agreement on whether such cells existed. Around the end of the 19th century, various studies on nerve tissue had provided clues to its structure; Waldeyer-Hartz summarized the evidence that its building blocks were in fact discrete, individual cells, the neurons.

6. Dolly the Sheep, 25th birthday

No sheep ever made bigger headlines than Dolly the Sheep, when scientists announced her existence in February 1997. (She had been born on July 5, 1996.) Before Dolly, most scientists doubted that a mammal could be cloned from an adult cell, although some cases of cloning from embryonic cells had been reported. But Dolly was cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh using a mammary cell from an adult sheep implanted in an egg from a black-faced sheep.

Dolly’s birth instantly made the film Jurassic Park seem more realistic and raised the specter of human cloning, boosting VHS rentals of The Boys from Brazil. Dolly seemed to be a perfectly typical sheep (although the telomeres capping the ends of her chromosomes were a tad shorter than usual) and had several offspring of her own. According to the Roslin Institute, she lived a normal life (except for the occasional media appearance) until infected with a cancer-causing virus during an outbreak in the lab, leading to her death at age 6 in 2003.

5. Ernest Rutherford, 150th birthday

Born in New Zealand in 1871, Rutherford attended the University of Cambridge and soon became the world’s premier experimental physicist (SN: 4/22/11). His early work at McGill University in Montreal established the basic principles of the newly discovered phenomenon of radioactivity. In 1911, at the University of Manchester in England, he deduced the existence of the atomic nucleus in analyzing results of experiments by his assistants Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. It was one of the most astounding and significant insights into the ultimate architecture of microscopic nature since the Greeks proposed the idea of atoms.

Later, Rutherford demonstrated the transmutation of one element to another and predicted the existence of a new subatomic particle, the neutron. When he died in 1937, the great atomic physicist Niels Bohr, who had studied under Rutherford at Manchester, remarked that, like Galileo, Rutherford had “left science in quite a different state from that in which he found it.”

4. DNA discovery published, 150th anniversary

Johann Friedrich Miescher, born in 1844 in Basel, Switzerland, went to medical school but chose a career in research rather than clinical practice. Biochemistry was a young science back then, as biologists were just beginning to understand the chemical contents of a living cell and how they interacted to drive cellular activity. A leader in the new field was Felix Hoppe-Seyler at the University of Tübingen in Germany, and Miescher went to work in his lab in 1868.

Miescher soon began to study white blood cells in pus from surgery patients in a nearby clinic. He found that the cell nucleus contained a substance that differed dramatically from the proteins and lipids in the rest of the cell. He called the new substance nuclein, later identified as DNA. Although Miescher made his discovery in 1869, Hoppe-Seyler wasn’t convinced and insisted on repeating the experiments himself, delaying publication until 1871.

Miescher believed that nuclein would turn out to be just as important as proteins. He did not realize that DNA was the carrier of heredity. But he did show that it was found in the sperm cells of many animals, a clue not fully appreciated until 1944, a century after his birth, when DNA was established to be the substance of genes. Miescher died in 1895.

3. Maxwell’s demon, 150th birthday

In 1871, in his book Theory of Heat, James Clerk Maxwell introduced the public to the idea of “a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course.” This hypothetical creature, later called “Maxwell’s demon” by the physicist William Thomson, was imagined by Maxwell to illustrate a quirk in the second law of thermodynamics.

In one popular version of the second law, hot (fast) and cold (slow) molecules always mix to reach an intermediate temperature. But a demon capable of tracking molecular velocities could sort the fast ones from the slow ones and reverse the normal equalizing of temperature. Such a demon would soon be very wealthy from providing free air conditioning in the summer and free heating in the winter. Maxwell’s point was not that the demon was a lawbreaker, but that the second law was statistical. Its validity depended on the impossibility of keeping track of trillions and trillions of molecules, something no real demon, or human, could manage.

Nevertheless, the demon haunted physicists for decades. In 1929, Leo Szilard claimed that the demon could not break the second law because it needed more energy to make its measurements than it could recover by sorting the molecules. But decades later, IBM physicist Charles Bennett, drawing on work by his IBM colleague Rolf Landauer, showed that the demon could track molecular velocities with as little energy as it wanted; the payback came when the demon had to erase data in its memory to make room for new observations. Erasure of information, Landauer had shown, always requires a minimum amount of energy, putting the second law securely back in the physics lawbook.

2. Hermann von Helmholtz, 200th birthday

Born in Potsdam (in the kingdom of Prussia) in 1821, Helmholtz was one of the 19th century’s most versatile scientists; his name turns up in the histories of multiple scientific fields and specialties. As a youngster, he had an interest in physics, but as that seemed a financially unwise career choice, he went to medical school and studied physiology instead. He was drawn to others who promoted the view that physiology should be based on the principles of chemistry and physics, not the “vital forces” that had been popularly emphasized previously.

After earning his medical degree, Helmholtz served as an army surgeon before becoming professor of physiology at the University of Königsberg. During that time, he composed a groundbreaking paper on the conservation of energy. While at Königsberg, he studied the nervous system, optics and acoustics, especially with regard to the physiology of the senses. He moved on to the University of Bonn as professor of anatomy and physiology, although he wasn’t very good at anatomy and shifted his attention to the physics of whirlpools in fluids.

After some time at the University of Heidelberg, where he became interested in philosophy, epistemology and the foundations of geometry, in 1871 he was awarded the physics chair at the University of Berlin. At last he could focus on physics, emphasizing the importance of the principle of least action for explaining physical phenomena. He also explored the ramifications of Maxwell’s new theory of electromagnetism, as well as dabbling in chemical thermodynamics and meteorology. By this time, he was recognized as one of Germany’s premier scientists, until his death in 1894.

1. Founding of Science Service, centennial

A century ago, newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps and biologist William Emerson Ritter perceived the need for better science journalism to serve the American public. They joined forces to create Science Service, which began syndicating articles about the frontiers of science to newspapers around the country.

The first week packet of such stories, labeled Science News Bulletin, was dispatched on April 2, 1921. Soon science enthusiasts sought personal subscriptions to Science Service’s weekly news, leading to the birth of Science News-Letter (on March 13, 1922) — a new weekly magazine available by subscription for $5 per year.

Today Science News-Letter is Science News, and Science Service is the Society for Science, but the philosophy is the same: to provide the public with the important news from the world of science in an understandable, yet accurate and authoritative form. Celebrating anniversaries, not part of the original mission, is a bonus.

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