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Even though it’s only even odds that 2022 will turn out to be less of a disaster than 2021 (or 2020), at least 2022 is the best recent year for compiling a Top 10 list of science anniversaries.
Curiously, many of those anniversaries are of deaths: the astronomer William Herschel for instance, who died in 1822; Hermann Rorschach, Alexander Graham Bell and the mathematician Sophie Bryant (all in 1922); and Louis Leakey (1972).
But there are also some notable firsts (the original slide rule, for instance) and births, including the scientist who illuminated how science could save society from devastating infectious diseases. Honorable mentions go to the birthdays of physicists Rudolf Clausius (200th), Leon Lederman (100th) and C.N. Yang (100th). They just missed edging out the oldest anniversary, a death from an earlier millennium:
10. Al-Nayrīzī, 1,100th anniversary of death
Abū’l-‘Abbās al-Faḍl ibn Ḥātim al-Nayrīzī was a Persian mathematician and astronomer, probably born around A.D. 865 in the town of Nayriz (in present-day Iran), which is why he became known as al-Nayrīzī. He died in 922 or thereabouts (close enough for Top 10 purposes). He got a job in Baghdad with the caliph al-Mu‘taḍid, writing treatises on math and weather, among other topics.
Unfortunately, many of al-Nayrīzī’s writings were long ago lost. But other writers mention his works and report that he was a master of astronomy and geometry. Among his surviving works is a translation and commentary on Euclid’s Elements. Al-Nayrīzī also attempted a proof of Euclid’s famous postulate about parallel lines never meeting. One of Al-Nayrīzī’s treatises for the caliph discussed how to determine the distance to upright objects. Had golf been invented yet, the caliph would have used such knowledge to calculate the distance to the flagstick without need of a GPS app.
9. Invention of mathematical weather forecasting, 100th anniversary
Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician who later turned to psychology, worked early in his career at England’s National Peat Industries. He was given the task of calculating optimal designs of drainage systems for peat moss subjected to different amounts of rain. He worked out the equations and then realized they could be applied to other problems, such as predicting the weather.
In the years leading up to World War I, he worked on a book, to be titled Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. He showed how values for temperature, humidity, air pressure and other weather data from one day could be processed by his equations to make a forecast for the next day. He took a break to be an ambulance driver during the war and then finished his book, published in 1922.
As Science News-Letter reported that year, one U.S. Weather Bureau scientist believed the book to show “that meteorology has become an exact science.” Unfortunately, to make the next day’s forecast from one day’s data took Richardson six weeks of calculation time. Only decades later did modern electronic computers make the mathematics of weather forecasting practical, and sometimes useful.
8. Invention of slide rule, 400th anniversary
William Oughtred, born in England in 1575, became a priest and part-time mathematician and tutor. In 1631 he wrote a book summarizing arithmetic and algebra, which became widely popular, later earning lavish praise from Isaac Newton.
Nine years before his book, Oughtred had designed the first slide rule. In 1614 John Napier had invented logarithms, showing how multiplication could be accomplished by addition. Six years later the astronomer Edmund Gunter had the bright idea of marking numbers on a straightedge proportional to their logarithms. Multiplication could then be performed by using a compass (the caliper kind, not for finding north) to find the answer by measuring the distances between the numbers to be multiplied.
In 1622, Oughtred had the even brighter idea of placing two such rulers next to each other. Sliding one along the other to properly position the numbers of interest allowed him to read the product of a multiplication right off one of the rulers. Oughtred later designed a circular slide rule, but one of his students claimed to have had that idea first, initiating a nasty priority dispute.
Further advances in slide rule design, incorporating things like cubes and trigonometric functions, made slide rules the premier computing devices of the 19th and 20th centuries — UNTIL electronic calculators came along, sadly depriving slide rules the opportunity to make it to age 400. But some people alive today once used slide rules, and probably still have one in a box somewhere.
7. Maria Goeppert Mayer, 50th anniversary of death
Maria Goeppert was born in what is now Poland in 1906. Encouraged by her father, a university professor, to pursue higher education, Maria chose mathematics. But in the mid-1920s her fascination with a newfangled idea called quantum mechanics induced her to shift to physics. After earning her Ph.D., she married a chemist (Joseph Mayer) and moved to the United States. She was allowed to teach classes where her husband was on the faculty (first at Johns Hopkins, later at Columbia and then Chicago) but not offered a job of her own. She was free to pursue research projects, though, often in collaboration with her husband or other scientists, and she produced important work on many topics at the interface of quantum physics and chemistry.
She was a master of the math needed to understand spectroscopy; her studies of the light emitted by the newly discovered transuranic elements in the 1940s showed that they belonged in a chemical family related to the rare-earth elements — an essential clue to the proper positioning of the transuranics in the periodic table. After World War II, she began studying nuclear physics and soon deduced the existence of a shell-like structure for the arrangement of nucleons (protons and neutrons) in the atomic nucleus. Her findings complemented similar work by Hans Jensen, with whom she later collaborated in writing a book on the nuclear shell model. Jensen and Goeppert Mayer shared the 1963 Nobel in physics for that work.
Her shell model research was aided by a suggestion from Enrico Fermi, the physicist famous for his work on the secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. That was only fair, as when Fermi disappeared from Columbia University in 1941 to work on the bomb, Goeppert Mayer was hurriedly recruited to teach his class. In 1960, Goeppert Mayer finally was awarded a full-time primetime job of her own at the University of California, San Diego, but shortly thereafter she suffered a stroke, limiting her ability to do research in the years before her death in 1972.
6. Aage Bohr, 100th birthday
Niels Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922, the same year as the birth of his son Aage. Aage grew up surrounded by physicists (who came from around the world to study with his father) and so naturally became a physicist himself. During World War II, Aage accompanied his father to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project, afterwards returning to his native Denmark to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen. During that time Aage turned his attention to a problem with the atomic nucleus.
His father’s theory that a nucleus behaves much like a drop of liquid had been applied successfully in explaining nuclear fission. But more recent work by Maria Goeppert Mayer (remember her?) showed that nuclei had an inner shell-like structure, suggesting ordered arrangements of individual particles, not collective, liquidlike behavior. Aage developed a new theoretical view, showing that his father’s view could be reconciled with Goeppert Mayer’s shell model. He then worked on experiments that corroborated it and shared the 1975 physics Nobel “for the discovery of the connection between collective motion and particle motion in atomic nuclei and the development of the theory of the structure of the atomic nucleus based on this connection.”
5. Gregor Mendel, 200th birthday
Born July 22, 1822 to a family of farmers in what is now the Czech Republic, Johann Mendel preferred higher education to farming, enrolling in a philosophy program properly complemented with math and physics. When the time came to return home and take charge of the family farm, he opted instead to enter a monastery (where he adopted the monastic name Gregor). He did not particularly enjoy his priestly duties, though, so he got a job as a teacher, which required him to enter the University of Vienna for advanced science education. There, in addition to more math and physics, he encountered botany. Later he returned to the monastery, where he applied his botanical skills to investigating patterns in the physical features of successive generations of pea plants.
In 1866 he published results implying the existence of “differentiating characters” (now known as genes) that combined in different ways when transmitted by parents to offspring. Apparently nobody very astute read his paper, not even Charles Darwin, who would have been intrigued by Mendel’s mention that his work was relevant to “the history of the evolution of organic forms.” Only at the dawn of the 20th century was Mendel’s work translated into English and then recognized for its importance to heredity, evolution and biology in general.
4. Pioneer 10, 50th anniversary of launch
Of all the robotic spacecraft launched from Earth into space, Pioneer 10 was truly the pioneer. It was the first craft to fly beyond the orbit of Mars and the first to exceed the distance of the solar system’s outermost planet, Neptune. Launched March 2, 1972, Pioneer 10’s mission was to visit Jupiter to take some cool snapshots of the giant planet and a few of its moons. Pioneer’s escape velocity from Earth surpassed 51,000 kilometers per hour (about 32,000 miles per hour), at the time a solar system speed record for any flying machine or bird. After dodging asteroids (most of them anyway) on its journey, Pioneer 10 reached the solar system’s largest planet in late 1973, passing within 131,000 kilometers (about 81,000 miles) on December 4.
Pioneer continued transmitting signals back to Earth until 1997, when budget cuts forced NASA to stop listening except for an occasional check-in. The very last signal came on January 23, 2003, from 7.6 billion miles away. By now Pioneer 10 is roughly 12 billion miles away, headed in the direction of the star Aldebaran. It will arrive in a mere 2 million years or so. If any Aldebaranians encountering it can decipher the sketches of a man and woman and the map revealing the point of origin, perhaps they will refuel it and send it back.
3. Insulin treats diabetes, 100th anniversary
In a century of medical miracles, one of the earliest and most dramatic was the discovery of insulin for treating diabetes. Diabetes had been recognized as a serious disease in ancient times. By the 20th century, scientists suspected that the pancreas produced a substance that helped metabolize carbohydrates; a malfunctioning pancreas meant a person could not extract energy from carbohydrates in food, resulting in dangerously high blood sugar levels while depriving the body of needed energy. It was nearly always fatal in children, and adults diagnosed with diabetes could hope for only a few more years of life.
As Science News-Letter reported in 1922, diabetes ranked “with cancer in fatality and incurability.” But in that year, a young doctor reported success in treating diabetes with a substance secreted by the pancreas. That doctor, Frederick Banting, had tried the idea with dogs the year before and gave the first insulin injection to a human, a 14-year-old boy, in January 1922. Banting originally used insulin purified from animals; in the decades since, researchers have engineered more sophisticated forms for human use. But even with the animal insulin, success was so dramatic that Banting and his lab director John Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1923.
2. Science News, 100th birthday
In its first year of providing news of science to the world, the organization then known as Science Service transmitted a weekly package of mimeographed pages (labeled Science News Bulletin) to newspapers and other media around the country. But soon other groups (such as libraries) as well as individuals began to request the package, and so Science Service initiated a new strategy with issue No. 50. On March 13, 1922, Science News-Letter was born, with a new masthead offering subscriptions for $5 per year, postpaid. Its first article: an account of a U.S. Department of Commerce report on the allocation of radio wavelengths. The report assured everybody that “widespread use of radio for the broadcasting of public information and other matters of general interest” would be forthcoming. In 1966 the magazine dropped “Letter” and became Science News, providing an excuse for another centennial celebration in 2066.
1. Louis Pasteur, 200th birthday
Born in France in December 1822, Louis Pasteur was not a precocious youth. His interests tended toward art, but later some inspiring lectures shifted his attention to chemistry, and he became one of the greatest chemists of all time. Also one of the greatest biologists. And although he received no medical education, he provided the foundation for modern medicine’s ability to fight disease.
Pasteur’s understanding of microorganisms led to the recognition of their capacity to damage human health. His tenacity in conducting rigorous experiments and his pugnacious public promotion of his findings established the germ theory of disease and encouraged new methods of hygiene. Time after time he was called on to devise solutions for perplexing problems facing various industries. He saved the silk industry. He showed how to prevent wine from going sour, and how to make milk safe to drink. He devised vaccines for various diseases, including one to cure rabies. No one person in history is more responsible than Pasteur for preserving human health and preventing unnecessary deaths. He is lucky he was born 200 years ago, though. If he were around today, he’d be getting death threats.