90th Anniversary Issue: 1930s

Germ warfare, tracking Pluto's rise and fall and other highlights, 1930–39

11:55am, March 9, 2012
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Germ warfare
Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize–winning discovery of a germ-fighting constituent from mold — penicillin (5/17/30, p. 314) — launched a renaissance in the control of infectious disease. The drug became so pivotal in fighting battlefield infections that civilian supplies had all but dried up by 1943. That prompted one researcher to share a detailed recipe, reported in Science News Letter, so that any doctor could “if he wishes make in his own home kitchen a supply of crude penicillin for treatment of … infections in or near the surface of the skin” (11/27/43, p. 350). A second major family of antibiotics — the sulfa drugs — also began around the same time to knock out formerly lethal or intractable infections, from tuberculosis to meningitis and scarlet fever. Before the 1930s were done, Gerhard Domagk, who discovered the first sulfonamide antibiotic, would be recognized with a Nobel, beating Fleming by six years. — Janet Raloff

Note: N indicates findings that went on to win a Nobel Prize.

1930 | Pluto Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto, a new planet predicted 25 years earlier by Percival Lowell (3/22/30, p. 178, 179, 180, 181, 186, 190; 3/29/30, p. 197).

1930 | Vitamin C Albert Szent-Györgyi reports isolating hexuronic acid, later identified as vitamin C (9/20/30, p. 184; 5/7/32, p. 292). N

1931 | Deuterium Heavy hydrogen atoms, now known as deuterium, are discovered by Harold Urey and George M. Murphy (12/19/31, p. 387). N

1931 | Mayan translator Mayan glyphs are deciphered for the first time (9/5/31, p. 147).

1932 | Neutron James Chadwick discovers the neutron, an uncharged particle in the atomic nucleus (3/5/32, p. 143). N

1932 | Positron Carl Anderson reports discovering a positively charged subatomic particle, later dubbed the positron — the first example of antimatter (9/24/32, p. 197). N

1933 | Radio astronomy Karl Jansky’s discovery of a shortwave radio hiss coming from the Milky Way’s heart is widely publicized, marking the beginning of radio astronomy (6/3/33, p. 339).

1933 | Defibrillation A strong electrical shock is found to restore a heartbeat to surgical patients whose hearts have begun fibrillating or have stopped (5/20/33, p. 317).

1934 | Radioactivity Irène Joliot-Curie and husband Frédéric Joliot create the first “artificial radioactivity” by bombarding boron with alpha particles (2/10/34, p. 83; 3/3/34, p. 133). N

1934 | Acetylcholine Henry Dale reports the discovery of acetylcholine, a chemical released by nerves to command a muscle to move (10/27/34, p. 266). N

1935 | Alpha, beta brain Scientists use electro­encephalographs to show that two types of electrical waves, labeled alpha and beta, occur in the brain (1/19/35, p. 35).

1936 | Antibiotics Major new antibiotics, later known as sulfanilamides, are developed in Germany and show promise in U.S. tests against Streptococcus infections (11/28/36, p. 339). N

1937 | Muon A new subatomic particle somewhere between an electron and a proton in mass, later termed the muon, is reported from debris of cosmic ray bombardments (5/8/37, p. 291; 5/29/37, p. 349; 11/27/37, p. 339).

1938 | Synthetic silk E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. is preparing to market nylon, a synthetic “silk” fiber, invented by late chemist Wallace Hume Carothers (10/1/38, p. 211).

1938 | Nuclear stars Nuclear physicist Hans Bethe describes how hydrogen atoms inside stars combine to form helium, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process (12/31/38, p. 425). N

1939 | Splitting uranium Scientists from Germany report the release of energy from splitting uranium atoms (2/11/39, p. 86). N

1939 | Fluorine Epidemiological data show that adding fluorine to drinking water cuts the risk of cavities (6/10/39, p. 365).

Tracking Pluto’s rise and fall
When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Science News-Letter ran six stories about the unnamed planet in the March 22 issue, describing the mysterious orb as “black as coal, dense as zinc.” One article speculated on whether the new planet might be named for Percival Lowell, who predicted its existence, or perhaps be called Minerva after the goddess of wisdom, or even President Herbert Hoover. The next issue brought a cover portrait of “Planet X” (right), and plenty more stories followed.

As for the 24-year-old astronomer who found Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh: He became the first winner of a four-year Kansas University scholarship (7/18/31, p. 40) created in honor of the first editor and publisher of Science News-Letter, Edwin Slosson.

Eventually Pluto lost its planethood (9/2/06, p. 149), but decades before, the magazine was explaining why some astronomers thought it had never warranted planetary status in the first place (2/11/56, p. 85; 10/3/64, p. 213). — Janet Raloff

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