The 22nd June 1633 saw Galileo Galilei, the famed scientist, was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Papal Inquisition and forced to recant his belief in the heliocentric universe originally put forward by Copernicus ninety years previously. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest where he remained for the final nine years of his life.
Galileo had visited Rome nearly two decades earlier in order to defend his belief that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way round after complaints to the Inquisition had been raised in early 1615. Despite his attempt to prove that heliocentrism didn’t contradict the Bible, an Inquisitorial commission in 1616 unanimously declared it to be “formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”
At that time Galileo was ordered to “abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves”. However, he was permitted to discuss heliocentrism in theory. It was this that caused him problems when, in 1632, he published a new book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Although written with permission from the Inquisition and the Pope, the book implicitly defended heliocentrism. Therefore, argued the Inquisition, Galileo had broken the sentence passed down 16 years earlier and should be forced to recant and be imprisoned.
Nearly 400 years later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a declaration that recognised and expressed regret at the way the Catholic Church had handled the so-called Galileo affair.
A solar eclipse during the Battle of Halys led to a truce between the kingdoms of Media and Lydia, making it the earliest historical event that can be precisely dated.
The Eclipse of Thales was recorded in The Histories of the Greek historian Herodotus. He claims that the philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted the eclipse in advance, marking what science writer Isaac Asimov later described as ‘the birth of science’.
Herodotus writes that the Lydians under King Alyattes II and the Medes under Cyaxares had been at war for five years over their competing interests in Anatolia. The spark had been a desire for revenge over the killing of one of Cyaxares’ sons by nomadic hunters who were subsequently given protection by the Lydians. Having fought a series of indecisive battles in the preceding years, the two armies met again in 585 BCE during which a solar eclipse took place.
There is some doubt over Herodotus’ claim that Thales predicted the eclipse in advance, especially as no records survive regarding exactly how he made his calculations. However, the eclipse was also recorded in other accounts. Herodotus describes how ‘suddenly the day became night’ and that the warring armies interpreted this as an omen to stop fighting. The peace was sealed by Alyattes’ daughter marrying one of Cyaxares’ surviving sons.
Later astronomers were able to pinpoint the exact date of historical eclipses, using the same calculations that help to predict future ones. By combining data of these ancient events with contextual knowledge of the Battle of Halys, 28 May 585 BCE was consequently identified as the most likely date. This makes the day of the battle a cardinal date, meaning it provides a waypoint from which numerous other dates in the ancient world can be calculated.
On the 11th May 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a reigning world chess champion under tournament conditions when it beat Garry Kasparov 3½-2½ over six matches.
Deep Blue began life as a graduate research project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Developed over 8 years by a team of eight computer scientists, it operated through brute force computing power. Ranked as the 259th most powerful computer in the world, Deep Blue was able to evaluate 200 million separate chess positions per second.
The Deep Blue team used records of Kasparov’s previous games to program the computer with his previous strategies. The programmers were also allowed to tweak the computer’s algorithm between rounds to take account of the last game. Kasparov, meanwhile, was playing blind since this model of Deep Blue hadn’t played any previous tournament games.
Kasparov was unnerved by the behavior of Deep Blue in the first match. Although the computer lost the match, Kasparov believed it showed ‘superior intelligence’ when it sacrificed a piece. However, IBM later claimed that the sacrifice was a result of a bug in the software resulting in the computer playing a fall-back move. However, this illogical move unsettled Kasparov and put him at a psychological disadvantage for the remaining games. He refused to accept the defeat, accusing IBM of human intervention which they strenuously denied. IBM also refused his requests for a rematch.
Marie and Pierre Curie proved the existence of the new element radium when they chemically isolated one-tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride.
Marie and Pierre Curie were both pioneering scientists in their own right, but as a research partnership they are most famous for their work on radioactivity. Inspired by the work of the French physicist Henri Becquerel who had been the first person to discover radioactivity, the Curies’ work won them the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics which they shared with Becquerel himself.
Marie had been born and raised in Poland but, since women were not permitted to attend university there, she moved to France to take up a place to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Having secured degrees in both physical sciences and mathematics by 1894 she married Pierre, an established physicist, whom she had met through a mutual friend. Marie subsequently began to pursue a Ph.D. for which she studied the recently-discovered rays emitted by uranium.
Having coined the term radioactivity to describe the radiation she observed, Curie focused on the minerals pitchblende and torbernite in her search for materials that emitted more radiation than uranium itself. Inspired by his wife’s discovery that the element thorium was radioactive, Pierre dropped his own research in 1898 to work with her. In July they published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element they named polonium, and in December they did the same for radium.
To unequivocally prove their existence, the Curies sought to isolate them from pitchblende. Having processed tons of the mineral, they eventually obtained one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride on 20 April 1902, for which they shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Late on the 13th April 1970, the spacecraft Apollo 13 was rocked by an explosion from one of its oxygen tanks. The resulting emergency led to the calm announcement by the crew of, “Houston we’ve had a problem”. However, most people misquote the phrase as “Houston we have a problem” after the award winning 1995 film changed the tense. The movie also placed the words in the mouth of Commander Jim Lovell, where in fact it was Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert who first reported the issue.
The explosion occurred after a routine procedure to stop gasses settling in their tanks. An investigation by NASA has since found that a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, leading to an expansion of gasses that eventually blew apart the tank. The explosion ripped off the side of the Service Module, vented oxygen into space, and left the crew stricken in a damaged craft.
Rather than landing on the moon, the mission’s focus was now to bring the crew safely home. Improvisation was key, with the crew forced to turn their landing unit into a lifeboat to ferry them back to Earth before transferring back to the Command Module for reentry. Fortunately the heat shield had not been damaged, and the crew splashed down safely on April 17th.
Put on for an audience of 200 invited attendees at the “Society for the Development of the National Industry”, the reaction to the moving black-and-white pictures caught the brothers by surprise. They had attended the conference to share Louis’ recent work on colour photography and only showed the 45-second film La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), as a novelty after Louis’ lecture.
The machine used to project the film had been patented by the brothers the previous month. Their father owned a photographic materials factory in Lyon and told his sons about the Edison kinetoscope that he had seen in Paris in 1894. Inspired by their father’s enthusiasm they invented the Cinématographe which combined a camera, developer and projector into a single unit. Its drive mechanism was based on the “presser foot” used in sewing machines, and used a clawed gear to engage with perforations in the side of a roll of film. As the gear rotated, individual frames moved in front of the lens to capture the moving image at a rate of 12 frames every second. The same mechanism could later be used to project the captured images.
The positive reception to the first film screening led the brothers to refine their invention and, on 28 December 1895, they staged their first public show at the Grand Café in Paris. Within less than a decade, however, the brothers withdrew from the motion picture industry and instead turned their attention to the development of colour photography, a technology that they went on to dominate for a number of years with their Autochrome process.
The Forth Railway Bridge stretches almost 2.5km across the Firth of Forth, a large estuary area to west of Edinburgh. The bridge, which features two main spans of over 500m each, continues to operate as vital rail link between Fife and the Lothians.
The Forth Bridge was designed by the English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker using the cantilever principle in which a central span is supported by the tension and compression of supporting arms that are only anchored at one end.
Before construction even began on the bridge in 1882, the contractor Sir William Arrol & Co. landscaped the shores on each side. They then constructed buildings such as workshops, as well as huts and houses to accommodate the more than 4,500 workers who worked on the bridge. Of these, 73 are known to have died in work-related accidents.
The bridge was finally completed in December 1889 and was tested the following month to ensure that it operated properly under load. Satisfied that the bridge was safe, the chairmen of the various railway companies involved in funding the £3.2 million construction travelled over it several times on 24 February. A week later the future King Edward VII formally opened the bridge and secured the last of 6.5 million rivets.
The bridge continues to carry more than 200 trains a day, and is an important symbol of Scotland. Thanks to the development of a new coating, it is also no longer necessary to continuously paint the bridge, a task that takes 10 years to complete.
Chappe was born into a wealthy family in 1763 and originally trained as a member of the church. However, the turmoil of the French Revolution meant that he was unable to continue in his position and he returned home to focus on science. Working with his brothers, Chappe began to experiment with optical telegraph designs.
Chappe was not the first person to attempt to create a system of long-distance communication. The English scientist Robert Hooke had presented a proposal a century earlier, but his idea was never implemented. Consequently the Chappe brothers were the first to successfully transmit a message when they demonstrated their system on 2 March 1791, covering more than 16km from Brûlon to Parcé.
Using what became known as the Synchronized System, Chappe was able to transmit the phrase ‘If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory’ in just four minutes. Two pendulum clocks had their faces modified with a series of symbols and, after being synchronised, were placed in the two locations alongside a telescope that pointed to the other. The transmitting station used black and white panels to alert the receiver to when the second hand of the clock was passing over the appropriate symbol, which they then recorded. The string of symbols, when decoded, produced the message.
Chappe soon abandoned synchronised clocks in favour of mechanical arms to portray the different symbols. When mounted on top of a tower, the arms could be seen through a telescope and their alignment either recorded or relayed onwards. A 230km semaphore line of these towers between Paris and Lille was installed in 1792.
On the 23rd February 1455, tradition dictates that Johannes Gutenberg published his printed Bible – the first book to be produced with moveable type in the West. Although there is no definitive evidence for this publication date, numerous secondary sources state it and therefore it is accepted by most people.
Gutenberg was not the first person in the world to use moveable type, and nor was the Bible his first foray into printing with it. He didn’t even produce that many copies, with estimates ranging from 160 to 185 Bibles of which only twenty-three complete copies survive. However, the process with which Gutenberg printed his Bible revolutionised the production of books and is viewed by many as crucial to the developments that followed in the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The earliest examples of moveable type – the use of individual components that can be ordered to produce a printed document – date back to China’s Northern Song Dynasty at the turn of the last millennium, but the enormous number of characters in scripts based on the Chinese writing system made the system unwieldly. Gutenberg therefore benefited from the much smaller number of characters in the Latin alphabet, but also invented a reliable way to cast large numbers of individual metal letters using a device called the hand mould. Furthermore, he developed an oil-based ink that was optimised for metal-type printing onto paper.
With 1,286 pages a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible is now estimated to be worth up to $35 million dollars, but the value of the printing press itself is immeasurable. Gutenberg’s creation was responsible for an intellectual revolution.
The DuPont company’s organic chemist Wallace Carothers received a patent for linear condensation polymers, the basis of the material better known as nylon.
Carothers joined DuPont from Harvard University, where he had taught organic chemistry. He was initially reluctant to move due to concerns that his history of depression would be a problem in an industrial setting, but DuPont executive Hamilton Bradshaw persuaded him otherwise and he took up his role in February 1928.
Having thrown himself into researching the structure and synthesis of polymers, Carothers and his team were responsible for creating the first synthetic replacement for rubber which was later named neoprene. Their laboratory, which was nicknamed “Purity Hall”, then began to focus on producing synthetic fibres that could be used in place of silk as this was becoming harder to source due to declining relations with Japan following the Great Depression.
On 28 February 1935 Carothers produced a fibre initially referred to as polyamide 6-6 as its components had six carbon atoms. Although the manufacturing process was complicated, DuPont were excited by the new material’s strength and elasticity and ordered the laboratory to press ahead with their research. However, plagued by depression, Carothers committed suicide in a hotel room in April 1937 by drinking potassium cyanide dissolved in lemon juice.
DuPont continued to refine the manufacturing process and revealed women’s stockings made of nylon, as it became known, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By the time the first pairs were made commercially available in 1940, the company had invested $27 million into the development of a material that is now found in everything from guitar strings to medical implants.