We often hear about history’s geniuses and inventions or the breakthroughs of today, but less frequently about the unspoken heroes or little, but important, ideas, research and discoveries. However, every day of the year holds a history of unspoken events and people, but often glossed over or forgotten. Today, on New Year’s day, you read the first post of an upcoming series, carefully examining the science of every day in the year. So read on to discover the work of Nobel prize winners, major science events and what to do if you’re a science-fiction fan!
Internationally heralded as perhaps the most successful environmental agreement in history, the Montreal Protocol was fully enacted on January 1st, 1989 after its adoption on September 16th, 1987 following the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985. The protocol targets 96 different environmentally-damaging chemicals previously used widely in industrial applications with significant effects on ozone depletion and global climate and environment. In fact, it may be responsible for delaying climate change by 12 years, and reducing cases of skin cancer by 2 million per year by 2030 (read more here and here). Talk about New Year’s Resolutions!
January 2nd has had the honour of being Science Fiction Day since 2012 and corresponds to the birthday of biochemist Isaac Asimov, sometimes considered the father of modern-day science fiction! It’s a day for your inner nerd to binge-watch sci-fi or perhaps pick up some of Asimov’s own works!
99 years ago, the kiwi physics professor, Ernest Rutherford, first split an atom. A common nitrogen atom into the similarly common oxygen atom and hydrogen atom. Nonetheless, it paved the way into the ‘Nuclear Age’, with the destructive atomic bombs employing the same process of nuclear fission to split heavy, radioactive elements. However, he never saw this destructive power as he died in 1937, 2 years before the 1939 beginning of the Manhattan Project. He also helped to establish the basic model of the atom, the ‘Bohr Model’, in collaboration with Niels Bohr and won the 1908 Nobel prize in Chemistry. You can read more about his life and research here.
This day marks the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), famously known for his theory of gravity with the associated story of an apple falling in his orchard. However, his genius is seen in the diversity of fields he contributed to: developing much of calculus, designing the reflecting telescope while a student, developed 3 laws of motion published in his book Principia along with the effects and equations of his theory of gravity (see more info here). Although Einstein later introduced his theory of general relativity, Newton’s equations are exact enough to only have a few centimetres difference when used to calculate a moon landing (read more here). For someone who lived 300 years ago that’s pretty impressive!
The German physicist Martin Brendel managed to take the first auroral photograph on January 5th, 1892. Given the long exposure time required for early cameras, along with the flickering light, this was a pretty impressive achievement, although coloured photos weren’t taken until 1950 (see here for more).
January 6th marks the day Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics died, his famous work on pea plants largely ignored by the scientific community until 1900, 16 years after his death. At the time he published his findings and presented lectures in 1865, the scientific community did not understand the work and revolution in genetics that is recognised today (read more about Mendel’s life and work). As noted by William Trotter in 1932 “It was not noisy prejudice that caused the work of Mendel to lie dead for thirty years, but the sheer inability of contemporary opinion to distinguish between a new idea and nonsense.” Now Mendel’s genius in pioneering the modern field of genetics is widely accepted, despite him never having seen it.
88 years ago, the element Francium (symbol Fr) was first discovered by Marguerite Perey and was the last naturally-occurring element to be discovered due to it’s extreme reactivity. Even today it is estimated that less than 30g of the element exists on earth or about 800 quintillion individual atoms.
This is the birthday of Steven W. Hawking, one of today’s leading cosmologists who has made incredible advances in his field despite having Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. This disease causes the death of motor neurons, causing a progressively reduced ability to move, eventually leading to death, normally 3-5 years after diagnosis as no cure or treatment exists.
11 years ago from today, the world first heard about the iPhone when Steve Jobs announced its upcoming release in 2007. Today we’re up to iPhone X, with another version rumoured to be released in September this year.
While the exact date of the first publication of Micrographia is unknown, it is accepted that this defining work appeared early in January of 1665 after permission for its publication was given in November of 1664. It is believed to be the first publication of the Folio Society and revolutionised the field of microbiology by providing amazingly clear and detailed drawings along with relatively simple text, opening this field of science to many.
Insulin, an important hormone secreted from the pancreas that lowers blood glucose levels by stimulating the liver to create and store glycogen, was first used to treat diabetes in the 14 year-old Leonard Thompson. The dose saved his life and insulin injections are now commonly used by diabetics to manually control their blood glucose levels, allowing people who once would have died within months of diagnosis to live relatively normal lives. You can read more about the history of insulin in this article.
The Fountain of Eternal Youth, supposedly granting eternal youth to any who drink from it is easily recognised as a myth, but what causes ageing? The best explanation is the length of telomeres, sections of ‘junk’ DNA in our cells. They’re necessary because every time DNA replicates, a little section is lost and that is from the unnecessary telomeres and it is thought that ageing is linked to the shortening and eventual loss of any telomeres so that actual information is lost every time a cell divides. Last year on January the 12th, an important protein named TZAP that regulates telomere length was discovered with a function of limiting telomere length. While limiting telomere length prevents too much cell replication (which could lead to cancer), scientists are eagerly investigating whether we could lengthen our telomeres to prolong lifespan, a sci-fi ‘Fount of Eternal Youth’. Read more about TZAP here if you’re interested!
In 2016, a climate change paper was published in Nature, stating that based on current climatology models, carbon dioxide emissions will forestall another ice age by at least 50,000 years. Whether you think we’ll still be around then or not, the results clearly show how we’ve changed global temperature patterns. The full article can be found here if you’re interested in reading more.
January 14th in 2005 was the day the first man-made object landed on an outer solar system moon, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The Cassini-Huygens probe was in the news late 2017 as it dived into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning to its death as a ‘Grand Finale’ to nearly 20 years of observation. You can read about the probe’s history, journey and discoveries on this NASA website.
Back to living longer again, on January 15th in 2015, a research paper was published in Cell, by a team who had managed to prolong the lifespan of fruit flies by over 50% by using genetic techniques to eliminate unhealthy cells. The team identified the gene azot, which controls the elimination of less fit cells and inserted an extra copy into the cells of Drosphila fruit flies, dramatically extending their lifespan. Even more exciting is that humans also contain the azot gene, a topic for further research! You can read the full article here.
In January of 1986, Voyager 2 discovered 11 new moons of Uranus: Puck, Juliet, Portia, Cressida, Desdemona, Rosalind, Belinda, Perdita, Cordelia, Ophelia and Bianca all named after Shakespearean characters. Of these, Juliet, Portia, Cressida, Desdemona, Rosalind and Belinda were all officially announced to the public on January 16, 13 days after their discovery.
January 17th in 1706 marks the birth of Benjamin Franklin who was not only one of the US founding fathers, but also an inventor and scientist. His contributions include: bifocal glasses, a heat efficient stove (the ‘Franklin’ stove), environmental cleanup and fire prevention and he helped draft the US constitution. His image is now pictured on the US $100 bill in order to help remember the wide areas he contributed to (read more here).
Last year NASA released NOOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) data on January 18th, showing that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Previously 2014 and 2015 both broke global temperature records, but 2017 didn’t follow the trend and was slightly cooler (0.18 degrees Celcius) than 2016 (read about the 2016 temperatures here). However, 2017 does claim the spot as the hottest year without the warming El Niño event.
January 19 marks the birth of James Watt, most commonly remembered for the unit of electrical power the ‘watt’ which was named in honour of him. He was an inventor and engineer and dramatically improved the efficiency of steam engines. You can read about his life and other inventions here.
In 1974, the US released an 18-cent stamp honouring Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first female to earn a US medical degree and later the first woman to gain a place on the UK Medical Register. She was ostracised by many while studying … firstly turned away from many medical schools then rejected by local women who considered her to be ‘odd’ once studying in New York. She was later forced to open her own clinic as she was refused by many hospitals; however, she left behind her a legacy of breaking barriers against women. Her accomplishments despite adversity are admirable and well worth reading about.
January 21st, 1954, the first ever nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus was launched. It later also set a record for a fully submerged journey to the North Pole, aided the atomic fuel source. You can read about and see historical photos of this record-breaking vessel here.
The second knighted scientist in this post, Sir Francis Bacon was born on January 22nd in 1561 and is famously known as a type of science philosopher, building on Aristotle’s ideas to form the basis of the modern scientific method. In addition to this, he studied law and became a member of parliament and was later in life appointed to the prestigious position of Lord Chancellor. Read more about his life here.
12,230,000,000 kilometres from Earth, Pioneer 10 transmitted it’s last signal, received on Earth on January 23rd 2003. It had previously passed and observed Jupiter, transmitting telemetry data until April 2002 and is now passively exploring deep space at the conclusion of its mission.
The birthday of Dr Michio Kaku, a famous theoretical physicist and co-founder of string theory. He is currently a professor at City College of New York and tries to popularise science in media interviews and on his own website.
Patent #223,898 was granted to Thomas Edison for his incandescent light. The first electric light, a precursor to our modern lifestyle of lights. Today, Edison’s legacy is seen in billboards, streetlights, screens and daily lights, many now LEDs but still a testament to Edison’s genius in coming up with a light source. Read more in this article ‘Lighting a Revolution’.
A diamond weighing 631.25g wouldn’t fit well on a ring or bracelet, but that’s the world’s largest diamond, discovered on January 26, 1905. It was sent to Britain’s King Edward VII as a birthday gift and was split into 9 seperate stones, 3 of which are today kept with the crown jewels in the Tower of London! Read more about this 3,106-carat gem here.
In 2013, the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature officially renamed asteroid 274301 as Wikipedia. It’s 1-2km in diameter and orbits the sun every 3.68 Earth years. If you’re interested in more, read this Wikipedia article about Wikipedia!
January 28th, 1884 is the birthday of twin balloonist scientists Auguste and Jean-Felix Piccard. They used balloons to study high-altitude science and enhanced many aspects of balloon design. Coincidentally, not only did Jean-Felix Piccard also die on the 28th of January (in 1963), but also Bertrand Piccard, grandson of Auguste Piccard navigated the Breitling Orbiter II, to set a record for endurance flying on the 28th of January 1998, with a journey of 9 days and 17 hours!
In 2013, the first paper demonstrating the first successful application of the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 was published on January 29 by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. This technique allows scientists to edit the genomes of any organisms, even at maturity with rapid effects as opposed to traditional gene editing which almost exclusively required gene editing to be performed in embryos which had to fully mature before effects could be seen. This ground-breaking technology could be applied as a cure for genetic diseases and it’s history has the world excited.
January 30 marks another step in the nuclear age when President Truman ordered the continuing research and production of nuclear weapons to build a hydrogen bomb. The US felt the need to have their own ‘super bomb’ following the Soviet Union testing their bomb. You can read about the history of the US H-bomb here.
To wrap up the month of January, there will be a total lunar eclipse on the 31st this year, the first for 2 years. Australians can view the reddish coloured moon for over 3 hours beginning about 9pm with totality lasting for over an hour from 11pm!