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Tom Siegfried

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Top 10 science anniversaries of 2015

From genes and dreams to gravity and Kevlar, 2015 offers plenty to celebrate

Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at DuPont, developed the chemical processes that enabled the invention 50 years ago of the superstrong material Kevlar, one of many anniversaries worth celebrating in 2015.

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As 2015 has been flying by, it’s perhaps not too soon to pause and take note of the Top 10 scientific anniversaries it offers. Some (Mendel’s presentation of his famous pea paper, for instance) have already passed. Others (George Boole’s birthday) will no doubt appear here as blog posts of their own later in the year. One (Alhazen’s Book of Optics) already has.

Most such anniversaries are artificial, of course. Almost all of the accomplishments described below really happened over the course of several years (except for George Boole’s birthday). But scientific memory requires milestones. Using an arbitrary date as an excuse to celebrate a worthy remnant of history is not a crime. Especially in a blog post. And so here are my Top 10 anniversaries for 2015. If your favorite is not on this list, it would have been No. 11.

10. Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), Book of Optics, 1015

OK, the date on this is a little fuzzy. Alhazen (real name, Abū ‘Alī al-Hasan Ibn al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham) began writing his monumental treatise on optics, Kitāb al-Manāzir, around this time, but lack of copyright records from a millennium ago makes that timing approximate. Nevertheless, it’s an appropriate millenniaversary to celebrate, given that it’s one of the prime excuses for making 2015 the International Year of Light. After the book’s translation a couple of centuries later into Latin, it became immensely influential in medieval Europe and was an early step toward merging the distinct mathematical and physical approaches that divided ancient Greek philosophers.

9. Invention of Kevlar, 1965

Stephanie Kwolek, who died last year, grew up enjoying sewing and fabrics and so naturally was destined to become a fashion designer. Except that she was also very smart and eventually decided instead to become a chemist or maybe go to medical school. She got a job as a chemist at DuPont and stuck with it, forgetting about medical school. But she did return to her love for fabrics by inventing a way to spin superstrong and ultrastiff polymer fibers, leading to the development of Kevlar. It made a great bullet-proof vest, but also found uses in dozens of other products, from tires to tennis rackets.

8. Prout’s hypothesis, 1815

In an age when atoms were regarded as hypotheses rather than realities, and when most people still thought atom meant indivisible, William Prout perceived a key property of atomic reality. He was a physician (specializing in digestion and urine), well-versed in chemistry, who was impressed by John Dalton’s brand-new atomic theory for explaining how chemical elements combined to make compounds. Prout proposed that all atoms heavier than hydrogen had atomic weights that were simply integer multiples of hydrogens. The profound implication was that atoms of all elements actually consisted of a combination of hydrogen atoms. (In case anybody missed what he implied, Prout published a short paper in 1816 pointing it out explicitly.) Prout’s hypothesis was a driving force in atomic weight and atomic structure research for the subsequent century. And if you count the neutron, cousin to hydrogen’s proton (and keep in mind that heavy hydrogen possesses one of each), he was pretty much right.

7. Amplitude modulation, 1915

An essential development for the success of early commercial radio, amplitude modulation encodes information that can be converted to sound (or to other forms) by varying the strength (amplitude) of a radio wave. A radio set decoded the variations in amplitude of the waves to produce music or comedy shows or accounts of baseball games. AM was used before 1915, but in that year John Renshaw Carson performed the first thorough mathematical analysis of AM signaling. His work led to ways for making AM transmission much more efficient (less bandwidth required) not only for radio transmissions but also for telephone calls.

6. Benzene ring, 1865

One of science’s best anecdotes relates how August Kekulé discovered the ring-shaped structure of the benzene molecule. It was known that benzene contained six carbon atoms, but no standard arrangement explained its properties. Then one night, Kekulé dreamed of a snake biting its tail, forming a ring. Fortunately, Sigmund Freud had not yet alerted the world about how to interpret such dreams, so Kekulé took it as a sign that benzene’s atoms also formed a ring, opening the way to the rich chemical field of aromatic organic compounds. Of course, Kekulé didn’t bother to tell anybody about the dream until three decades later, so its historical status may be no more solid than the story about Newton dodging an apple.

5. Watt’s steam engine condenser, 1765

James Watt did not, as sometimes presumed, actually invent the steam engine. But before he came along, such engines were rather cumbersome and inefficient. Watt built one of his own in 1765 that incorporated crucial improvements, in particular a separate condenser to capture steam and reliquefy it, greatly reducing steam loss. It took a few years to perfect the idea, but Watt’s improved engine soon became the driving force of the Industrial Revolution and ultimately inspired the science of thermodynamics.

4. Mendel’s genetics, 1865

He didn’t publish until 1866, but in February and March of 1865 Gregor Mendel presented the results of his pea experiments to the Brünn Natural History Society in Germany. Many scientists had noticed patterns in plant hybridization, but Mendel was the first to discern a “general law” describing those patterns. He deduced the existence of “differentiating characters” provided by parents that combined in different ways to produce patterns in offspring features; those characters correspond to what became known as “genes.” Unfortunately, nobody in Brünn bothered to tweet from Mendel’s talk, and nobody translated his published paper into English until 1901. And although Mendel alluded to the importance of his work for “the history of the evolution of organic forms,” Darwin remained unaware of it, as did the rest of the scientific world, until the 20th century.

3. Boole’s birthday, 1815

If you’re reading this online (or even if you printed it on paper) you can thank George Boole, for without the logic based on 1s and 0s that he devised, computers would be pretty much worthless. In his attempts to quantify the “laws of thought,” Boole showed how 1 and 0 could represent true and false, thereby permitting the construction of “logic gates” than can transform numerical data into logical conclusions.

2. Maxwell’s electromagnetism, 1865

James Clerk Maxwell’s success in explaining magnetism, electricity and light established the model for doing theoretical physics as it has been practiced since. He perceived the physical reality underlying the mathematical manipulations that revealed deep unity of apparently diverse phenomena. He established the theoretical groundwork needed for science to harness electricity for societal needs. He was the greatest physicist of his era, but sadly died before age 50.

1. General Relativity, 1915

Albert Einstein had already established himself as an accomplished physicist with special relativity and his papers on quantum theory when he completed his general theory of relativity in 1915. General relativity, though, was soon to make him famous worldwide and established his stature as the premier genius of the 20th century. Einstein’s theory not only explained gravity, it opened the way to understanding the origin and evolution of the universe, along with predicting bizarre things like black holes and gravitational waves. A millennium from now, general relativity will still be the No. 1 item on any intelligent list of top 10 anniversaries in 3015.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

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