A decade of history of science!

I’ve picked up a significant number of new followers on the blog lately, and this combined with the wrap-up of the decade seems like a good time to share some of my favorite history of science posts of the past ten years, for those who might have missed them. I can’t say that I’ve written at a particularly fast pace, but I do manage to find some of the strangest, most obscure, and most interesting tales about science and how it has been done! What follows is a list of posts, by year, and a short description of what makes them special to me.

Here’s hoping for another ten years of fascinating science and science history!

April 28, 2010: Mythbustin’: 1808 edition (the incombustible man). Science has a long history of debunking supposed supernatural powers, and a great and relatively little-known example of this was early efforts to explain how some performers seemed to be immune to heat and fire! A fun post that delves into both science and theatrics.

August 4, 2010: Attack of the giant squid! (1874).  The giant squid was known by sailors and fisherman for centuries before science finally got a chance to study a specimen in person. The story of how this came about is legendary, involving a fisherman who literally poked around where he really shouldn’t have! I had heard about this story since I was a kid, but a friend suggested I look into the original scientific papers, which turned into a fun and fascinating tale.

October 15, 2010: Benjamin Franklin shocks the world! (1752). Speaking of legends, we’ve all heard how Benjamin Franklin “discovered” electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm, but is it true? I explored the history of Franklin’s electrical researches, along with his fateful kite flying, and learned much more than I thought I would.

February 24, 2011: The Saga of the Scientific Swindler! (1884-1891). One of my favorite discoveries of all time! While browsing old journals, I found repeated references to a con man, well-versed in paleontology, who was scamming some of the best scientists of his era. The story is fascinating and has a dramatic and satisfying, albeit mysterious, conclusion.

January 16, 2012: François Arago: the most interesting physicist in the world!  Another story laden with drama, and literal death-defying adventure. Young French physicist François Arago had the bad luck to be doing fieldwork in Spain when Napoleon decided to invade, and he was forced to flee for his life. What followed was a struggle to get safely home that rivals The Odyssey. Seriously: if we believe his account, and I have no reason to seriously doubt it, he was nearly killed multiple times.

May 16, 2012: The secret molecular life of soap bubbles (1913). This was another serendipitous discovery. We’re all familiar with the bright colors that appear when light shines on soap bubbles. Only French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin, however, realized that these colors provide proof of the existence of atoms!

January 23, 2013: The Resurrection Men: when people would kill to get into cemeteries. In a macabre mixture of politics and science, there was an era when there was great demand for human cadavers to train medical students, but also a shortage of bodies due to religious taboos. The result was a plague of grave-robbing, where “Resurrection Men” would sneak into cemeteries to grab the freshly-interred. In one stunning story I found, this led to a pitched gun battle between the robbers and the relatives of the deceased!

April 10, 2013: April 10, 1815: Mount Tambora blows up.  The eruption of Mount Tambora was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.  On the 198th anniversary of the devastating event, I went back to the few recorded eyewitness descriptions to give a feeling for what it must have been like for those who experienced the catastrophe.

The island of Sumbawa, with Mount Tambora clearly seen. Via Wikipedia.

October 14, 2014: Jane Marcet educates Michael Faraday.  Historically, women were largely prohibited from getting involved in science. Nevertheless, many made great accomplishments. Jane Marcet wrote a chemistry book aimed at both women and a popular audience, and none other than the great Michael Faraday learned chemistry from it. In this post, I talk about Marcet’s influence and her friendship with Faraday.

November 30, 2015: Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe steps from the shadows. Some years ago, I had read about a woman who worked as a graduate student for the famed physicist A.A. Michelson, but had not been able to find any other information about her. Imagine my delight when one of her relatives contacted me a few years after I wrote a blog post to share more information!  Alice Zent provided me with a wealth of information and documents about Marguerite O’Loghlin Crowe.

Crowe’s 1928 passport, courtesy of Alice Zent.

December 20, 2016: Dircks and Pepper: A Tale of Two Ghosts. One of the most famous optical illusions in history is known as Pepper’s Ghost, which creates the appearance of a phantom that can seemingly interact with other objects and actors on a stage. It even makes an appearance in Disney’s Haunted Mansion! But there is a fascinating, tumultuous tale about the fight between Pepper and his co-inventor Dircks over the rights and recognition for their invention.

April 17, 2017: What is Quantum Entanglement? Part 1: Waves and particles. In one of my most ambitious series of posts, I endeavored to explain the history and science of one of the most baffling phenomena in physics: quantum entanglement, called by Einstein “spooky action at a distance.” I really start from the beginning of quantum physics, and attempt to show how our belief in this bizarre phenomenon grew naturally and logically from physics and philosophy.

Visualization of de Broglie waves around an atom. Each more distant electron orbit has one extra “hump” in the electron wave.

December 10, 2018: History of the Conservation of Energy: Booms, Blood, and Beer (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). As time has passed, my blog posts have gotten more ambitions and more thoroughly researched! In this three part series, I explain how one of the most fundamental principles of physics — the law of conservation of energy — was discovered by a trio of unlikely researchers: a cannon maker, a physician, and a brewer!

Rumford’s basic experimental apparatus, from his 1798 paper.

I hope you enjoy this look back at my science blogging! 2019 was a relatively slow year for writing for me for many reasons, but I’m looking forward to sharing a lot of science and science history in 2020.

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