This week in science history 27th Feb – 5th March

This week we’re celebrating all of our top picks for the most impactful scientific discoveries made between 27th February and 5th March through history.

February 27, 2023
Maya Raman Jones
This week in science history 27th Feb – 5th March

In our previous post, we looked back at some of the amazing achievements of women in STEM throughout history.

This week, we’re casting a broader net, and celebrating all of our top picks for the most impactful scientific discoveries made between 27th February and 5th March through history.

27th February 1940

Kamen and Ruben discover carbon-14

Martin Kamen and Samuel Ruben detected radioactivity in a sample of CO2, obtained by burning a sample of graphite that had been bombarded with heavy hydrogen (deuterons) in the cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley.

Carbon-14 is a radioactive naturally occurring isotope of carbon, making up only 1 or 1.5 atoms per 1012 atoms of carbon in the atmosphere. As its chemical properties are the same as the 99% abundance carbon-12 isotope, carbon-14 atoms can replace non-reactive carbon in order to trace chemical and biochemical reactions.

Furthermore, carbon-14 has a very long half-life (5730 years), which allowed Willard Libby to develop radiocarbon dating in 1949. This technique allows the age of organic matter to be calculated by comparing the ratio of remaining, undecayed, carbon-14 in a sample to the atmospheric content at the time of death.

28th February 1953

James Watson and Francis Crick announce to their friends that they have determined the chemical structure of DNA

Without a doubt the most famous discovery of this week, the 28th of February is the 70th anniversary of the day Crick and Watson walked into The Eagle pub in Cambridge and announced “We have discovered the secret of life.”

Crick and Watson had been trying to build a 3D model, and were competing against the team at King’s College London, who had been using crystallography to study DNA.

Rosalind Franklin captured Photograph 51, the first image of DNA that showed a visible helix shape, and without her permission a colleague showed the picture to Watson. Crick and Watson then understood that the structure was a double helix, held together with bonds between the base pairs. Based on this, Franklin would be eligible for a spot in our recent blog discussing the forgotten women of STEM.

1st March 1893

Nikola Tesla gives the first public demonstration of radio in St Louis, Missouri

While Marconi is often credited with inventing the radio, much of the theory had already been demonstrated by Tesla a few years earlier.

In this demonstration, Tesla successfully transmitted electromagnetic energy without wires. He used two long Geissler tubes to show wireless lighting.

Figure 1: A similar presentation at Columbia College in 1891

Tesla concluded this demonstration by saying that he was sure a system like his could eventually conduct ‘intelligible signals or perhaps even power to any distance without the use of wires’ by conducting it through the Earth.

2nd March 1995

Researchers at Fermilab announce the discovery of the top quark

In March 1995, physicists completed the set of 6 predicted quarks (up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom) with the discovery of the top quark.

The bottom quark had been discovered in 1977, but the creation and discovery of top quarks required much higher-energy collisions owing to their more massive size.

Top quarks are extremely short-lived, with a predicted lifetime of only 5 × 10–25 s, which is too short for it to form hadrons (composite subatomic particles made of two or more quarks). This therefore allows physicists an opportunity to study a ‘bare’ or ‘naked’ quark, which is a description that’s a little more awkward to use when discussing bottom quarks…

3rd March 1969

NASA launches Apollo 9 to test the lunar module

Apollo 9 was the first flight of the full Apollo spacecraft, and the third human spaceflight in NASA’s Apollo program.

Its mission was to test the lunar module, rehearse the lunar module docking and rehearse the emergency rescue spacewalk. The pressure was on, as two months earlier the Soviet Union had docked two modules in space and it was clear that the Space Race was drawing to a close.

Fortunately the mission was a complete success, and Commander James McDivitt, Command module pilot David Scott and Lunar module pilot Russell Schweickart paved the way for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 trip just a few short months later.

The menu aboard Apollo 9 was: shrimp cocktail, beef and vegetables, cinnamon toasted bread cubes (8), date fruitcake, orange-grapefruit drink… which sounds surprisingly nice for space food!

4rd March 1985

The Food and Drug Administration approves a blood test for HIV infection

The human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) are two species of retroviruses that, if left untreated, cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

First clinically observed in 1981, HIV/AIDs has killed approximately 40.1 million people and 38.4 million are infected globally today – it is still considered by many health organisations to be an ongoing pandemic (Covid-19 being the only other, at time of writing). Around 75% of those affected today are receiving antiretroviral treatment, which decreases the patient’s HIV load and prevents the condition progressing to AIDS.

In the early 1980s, gay men and intravenous drug users were most vulnerable to infection, and suffered significant stigma and discrimination. There was significant misinformation at the time, for example, many believed that HIV could be transmitted by shaking hands. The discovery of a blood test allowed people to receive a diagnosis, which was the first step towards finding new treatments and tackling some of the misconceptions around the disease.

This test has been used since for screening all blood donations in the United States.

5th March 1872

George Westinghouse patents the air brake

George Westinghouse was an American engineer, best known for championing the use of alternating current for electric power distribution in the early 1880s.

At around 20 years old, he witnessed a train wreck where two engineers could see each other approaching, but were unable to apply their brakes in time, as each train carriage needed to be manually stopped.

A few years later, Westinghouse invented a compressed air braking system, using a single pipe running along the length of the train and a reservoir and valve on each car. The train driver could then evenly apply the brakes across all cars in the train. Airbrakes are still considered to be the safest option for large vehicle breaking, and are used in buses, trucks and trains today.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this week in science, and for any leap year fans wondering about February 29th – on that date in 1939, physicist Ernest Lawrence received his Nobel Prize for the invention of the cyclotron!

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