Let it be known that this post did indeed start with 12… whenever someone mentions the most exalted achievements of mankind, the topic usually comes around to science. Along with our art and music, we’re the only animals that will know of that routinely apply the scientific method to the universe around us. And yet, some scientific discoveries weren’t supposed to be made, and their advent catapulted us years ahead of our time, or at least had the potential to do so, if only they had been recognized. What follows is a list of surreptitious, un-authorized, or just plain awesome discoveries that gave us some key insight into the nature of reality. Just like in the Wizard of Oz, most scientists work for their entire lives just to get a brief glimpse of the man behind the curtain. Anyway, we tried to be as fair as possible and include examples from a cross-section of scientific disciplines; we also tried to include the rare but true tales alongside the ones everybody knows. If your fave didn’t make the cut, let us know; there’s certainly cyber-space for a part II! Thanks also to those intrepid readers who sent in their suggestions; you rock, as always…
1. The Discovery of Neptune: The careful prediction of the position of Neptune by Urbain Le Verrier in 1846 represented a key turning point in science. Not only was it the first time that a planet was found after a deliberate search, it showed that science was gaining the capability to make useful predictions. Le Verrier was a theorist, and was said to have despised the tedium of actual observation. Neptune was right were he said it was, and was first sighted by Johann Galleon September 23, 1846. This evened out the score to one planet (Uranus, which Herschel wanted to name George) for the British and one for the French. Of course, America joined the fray with controversial Pluto, but that’s another story!
2. Hubble & the birth of Cosmology: It’s hard to believe that less than a century ago, our galaxy was believed to be the sum of the universe. Little swirls and smudges were believed to be nebulous proto-solar systems in the throes of creation (it’s easy to see how they got there). Edwin Hubble was key to expanding our view in a way no one else has before or since. By identifying Cepheid variable stars in what we now know of as the Andromeda galaxy, we’ve come to realize that these island universes are in fact a stupendous distance away, in the case of Andromeda, over 2.5 million light years distant. The discovery of the phenomenon of red shift pushed this out even farther, with some quasars being known at a distance of over 2.5 billion light years!
3. Charles Babbage and his Computer: Did you know that a “computer” was once an occupation? Among his accomplishments, Mr. Babbage devised plans for an amazing device known as the Difference Engine. Conceived in 1822 to compute the trigonometric and logarithmic functions of polynomials, the device was a computer far ahead of its era. Although never built in his time, this device was later constructed by the London Science Museum in 1991 to demonstrate that it was indeed functional. With its whirring of brass cogs and gears, the machine is just mesmerizing to watch. Which makes one wonder; would we have been saddled with Windows Vista had Babbage’s original Difference Engine been built?
4. Lithium Treatments: Sometimes the most effective solutions come from the most off-the-wall sources. In 1949, an Australian doctor named John Cade began injecting guinea pigs with urine extracted from manic-depressive patients in an effort to isolate an excess chemical that was perhaps contributing to their condition. The animals died, making Cade wonder if the cause was a buildup in uric acid. Lithium had been used for some time to treat gout, also caused by uric acid buildup. He then ejected a control group with a 0.5% solution of lithium, and discovered the mice became very placid. Giving lithium carbonate to one of his most mentally disturbed patients, Cade was surprised at the almost immediate turn around; the man was not only relieved of his insanity, but able to check out of the facility! Cade’s remarkable discovery was one of the true “light bulb” moments in medical science; lithium medications are still in use today.
5. Invention of Post-its: These little (and sometimes actually still yellow) babies are one of the great unsung inventions of the 20th Century. But did you know that in the 1970’s chemist Art Frey originally rejected the adhesive because it was insufficiently sticky? He did, however, notice it made an excellent bookmark. These days, post-it’s probably have more unauthorized applications than any another invention; post-it notes have even been found by recovery aircrew, still stuck to the nose of aircraft! When we toured the McMath Pierce Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak, Arizona, we even spotted two post-its being used to create a slit for light diffraction…we love it when quick fixes become permanent solutions. Our favorite everyday use? Photo-copier editing!
6. Benzene Dream: Way back in the 1860’s, German Chemist Fredrich Kekule was plagued with a problem; defining the atomic structure of benzene. Expressed in the formula C6H6, this inscrutable molecule eluded him. The idea of a ring structure came to him in a dream of an intertwined fiery snake, chasing its tail. (Freud would have had a field day with that one…) Kekule’s discovery no less than opened up the field of chemical aromatics.
7. My Body, the Phosphorous Factory: OK, this “best-of list” has two urine tales, almost as many as there are astronomical, but it’s a tale too bizarre to not be told. Way back in 1609 when chemistry was still interlaced with alchemy, an idea had taken hold that the “life force” that animates living things could somehow be isolated in the excretions of the body. This led chemist Henning Brandt of Hamburg to begin collecting and reducing his own urine, distilling it, collecting its condensate in water. Although he was searching for the fabled Philosophers Stone, what he had in fact created was ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate, a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. He had also discovered the element phosphorous. Of course, it took over 1,000 liters of urine to produce 60 grams of phosphorous… and one wonders what Brandt’s wife thought of the vats of stinking urine that lay about the house! Brandt’s own reluctance to reveal his secret eventually led to others stealing his thunder, and it was found later that bones are a much wealthier reserve of phosphorous than urine.
The famous X-ray pic “Photo 51!” (Credit:Rosalind Franklin).
8. Double Helix discovery: I love to point out to folks an often overlooked fact about 20th century science; did you know that we cracked relativity & quantum physics before we discovered the building blocks of life? The breakthrough of the discovery of the double helix nature of DNA was published in Nature by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. This led to the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962, but what’s not as well known is the pioneering work by scientist Rosalind Franklin that made this discovery possible. Her X-ray diffraction image dubbed “Photo 51” was the first glimpse at the structure of life itself.
9. The Discovery of Penicillin: In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Flemming noticed a lone Petri dish had been mistakenly left open. Overnight, a bluish-green mold had taken residence, surrounded by an odd halo. Flemming correctly deduced that the mold, now known as Penicillium, was suppressing the Staphylococcus bacterium, and prokaryotes worldwide have been on the run ever since. Just think of the massive number of bacterial infections that used to be fatal, that are now handled by a simple course of antibiotics!
10. Nuclear Fission, at a Stoplight? Sometimes, it seems as if the hand of God pulls up the shades and lets us glimpse the “guts” of the universe, just for a second. Such a moment occurred to physicist Leo Slizard with realization on a London street corner that a self-sustaining fission reaction could release the vast energy in uranium. Having fled Nazi Germany just months before in 1933, Slizard was walking home after having read an article in the London Times by Ernest Rutherford denouncing the harnessing of the power of the atom as “pure moonshine,” when the idea for a neutron chain reaction came to him. Of course, nowadays, if his IPhone had interrupted him, he would have simply kept walking and texting…
Saturn in UV light! (Credit: NASA/ E. Karkoschka, University of Arizona).
11. Hubble, Take Two: Next up is not a person, but a thing; in its 20 years in space as of this month, the Hubble Space Telescope has simply redefined our place in the cosmos. Not only has Hubble returned some pretty pictures, but it has no less than minted a whole new generation of astronomy PhDs. And the trickle-down benefits have been enormous; for example, did you know that the explosion in digital camera technology that came about in the 1990’s was partly due to Hubble?
12. Mendeleev and the Periodic Table: Ever wonder why the periodic table of the elements has that weird shape? In 1860’s Dmitri Mendeleev set about grouping known elements by chemical properties using assigned cards on a table. He soon realized the groupings could only make sense if certain elements were yet to have been discovered, an enormous insight. The discovery of the Nobel gas Helium in the corona of the Sun during a solar eclipse in 1868 vindicated the predictive power of Mendeleev’s periodic table, and struck a victory for true science geekdom!
So there you have it, a baker’s dozen of the wonders that can occur when scientists buck the status quo. It was a tough call, narrowing it down to “only” 12… if the feedback’s decent, we may make this a recurring thing! Thanks also to Sarah Lesniak (aka @srenade) for #’s 8, 9, 11 and Clay Davis (aka @claymdavis) for #10. Got any personal favorite science moments or heroes/heroines? Leave a comment or tweet ‘em at us!
In the meantime, play with those moldy Petri dishes, reduce and condense those bodily fluids, and above all, don’t ignore those dreams of fiery snakes… the universe might just be trying to tell you something!
Just what’s growing there in the back of the refrigerator? (Credit: The Science Museum of London).