Enrico Fermi - Scientist of the Day

Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, was born Sep. 29, 1901. In the 1930s, Fermi set up a very productive research institute in Rome, and his group made several important discoveries about the atomic nucleus. He discovered first of all that a neutron can turn into a proton by releasing an electron and a brand new kind of particle, a neutrino. Later that very same year, 1934, Fermi’s research team discovered that if you slow neutrons down, by passing them through paraffin, they are much more easily absorbed by other atoms, a crucial discovery that was essential for the future of nuclear physics. The first photo above shows Fermi and his Roman research team; Fermi is on the right.

Fermi should have received the Nobel Prize for one of these two discoveries, or both. Instead, Fermi received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 for creating the first “transuranic” elements. Fermi had bombarded uranium with slow neutrons and created various strange new elements, which he assumed were heavier than uranium, because of the added neutrons. This is one of the few times (if not the only time) in history that a Nobel Prize has been awarded for an erroneous discovery, because what Fermi had actually done was to split the uranium atom into two parts, and his new elements were not transuranic at all, but fission products like barium and strontium. They weren’t recognized as such, because absolutely no one expected them, since no one had the foggiest idea that the atom could be split that easily. It wasn’t until after Otto Hahn split the uranium atom in 1938 and recognized that the barium is a byproduct of fission, that it was realized that Fermi had actually done it first, without knowing what he had accomplished. But the award turned out to be a good thing for Fermi, even if it was for the wrong reason. The trip to Stockholm to receive his medal (see second image above) allowed him to escape from fascist Italy and thence to the United States, where he would play a vital role in the Manhattan Project by constructing the first atomic pile.

The Linda Hall Library owns a bronze best of Fermi, sculpted by Robert Berks, who also designed the Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, D.C. It sits in the outer reading room of the History of Science Collection (third image above).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

A selection of plates from Phisica sacra, by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, 1734.

Part of LHL Digital Collections.

Sébastien Le Clerc - Scientist of the Day

Sébastien Le Clerc, a French engraver, was born Sep. 26, 1637. Shortly after Louis XIV established the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1666, Le Clerc was appointed engraver to the king, and thus he fell into the position of illustrating the work of the Academy in its scientific publications. When Claude Perrault embarked on the ambitious program of dissecting and analyzing the exotic animals in the King’s menagerie (see yesterday’s Scientist of the Day), it was Le Clerc who did all the drawings and engravings for the published work (see images from yesterday, and the tortoise above). He also designed the headpieces, tailpieces, and decorated initials for the book, Mémoires pour servir ą l’histoire naturelle des animaux (1676). One of his most famous engravings, which appears as a frontispiece in the Memoires, shows King Louis XIV visiting the Academy, an event that had not yet occurred when Le Clerc conceived the scene in 1671 (see first image above).

Le Clerc was also professor of geometry and perspective at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and he wrote several textbooks on geometry and perspective, illustrated with his own engravings, which we have in the Library. The two illustrations above are taken from his Pratique de la geometrie (1682), and seldom have lessons in Euclid looked so good.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Claude Perrault - Scientist of the Day

Claude Perrault, a French physician and anatomist, was born Sep. 25, 1613. In 1666, Perrault became one of the inaugural members of the Royal Academy of Science in Paris, where he organized regular dissections of animals that had expired in the King’s menagerie at Versailles. At the time, animal anatomy was not part of natural history; it was rare for a description of an animal in a zoological encyclopedia to include any details of its inner parts. Perrault published the results of the Academy’s group dissections in 1676, and he pointedly called his book: Mémoires pour servir ą l’histoire naturelle des animauxMemoirs for a Natural History of Animals—indicating that comparative anatomy should be an essential part of natural history. And after Perrault, it was.

We displayed Perrault’s Memoires in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur ofLife. The images included here are, in order: a headpiece from the Memoires, depicting the anatomists at work at the Academy; a portrait of Claude (from a book edited by his brother Charles, author of Tales from Mother Goose); and two plates from the Memoires, showing the inside and outside of a gazelle and a beaver. The plates (except for the portrait) were drawn and engraved by Sébastien Le Clerc, tomorrow’s Scientist of the Day.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Girolamo Cardano - Scientist of the Day

Girolamo Cardano, an Italian physician, was born Sep. 24, 1501. Cardano led a tumultuous life in Milan and Bologna, constantly involved in scrapes involving gambling or professional rivalry. His older son, whom he cherished, was convicted and executed for poisoning his wife. Cardano himself was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of heresy. Yet in spite of his woes, Cardano became one of the most sought-after physicians in Italy, second perhaps only to Vesalius, even being invited to Scotland to cure an Archbishop there. That he lived to be almost 75 is quite astonishing, as he himself confesses in his delightful Autobiography.

Like many physicians in the Renaissance, Cardano strongly believed in the importance of astrology for practicing medicine, and he wrote several astrological treatises in the 1540s. The Libelli quinque (Five Books, 1547) is especially interesting because it contains the genitures of important Renaissance individuals, including several scientists (a geniture, a specific kind of horoscope, shows the positions of the planets and signs of the zodiac at the moment of birth). We see here the genitures of: the great pre-Copernican astronomer Regiomontanus, the revolutionary anatomist Vesalius, and the geometer-artist-engraver, Albrecht Durer. There is no horoscope of Cardano in the book, but he does include a nice portrait of himself on the title page verso.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Johann Encke - Scientist of the Day

Johann Encke, a German astronomer, was born Sep. 23, 1791. In 1819, Encke realized that a comet discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1786 was actually a periodic comet, only the second such comet (after Comet Halley) to be discovered. Unlike Halley’s comet, which has a period of just over 75 years, the period of this comet is only 3 years, indicating it doesn’t get much further out than the asteroid belt before dipping back inside the orbit of Mercury. The comet is known to this day as Encke’s Comet, one of the few comets named after the person who calculated its orbit, rather than the discoverer. Comet Encke is officially known as 2P/Encke, the “P” meaning that it is periodic, the “2” indicating it was the second periodic comet discovered. Comet Halley has the official designation 1P/Halley.

Comet 2P/Encke is still with us, although several orbits ago, in 2007, it dramatically lost its tail after it rounded the sun, an event that was recorded by a NASA spacecraft (two stills are shown above; if you click on the image at the link, you will see a short video of the tail being blown off). There is no cause for concern, however, as a comet’s tail will grow back the next time around. The top image shows Comet Encke during its latest Earth encounter, in 2013, before the tail has developed.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Thomas Wright - Scientist of the Day

Thomas Wright, an English teacher and astronomer, was born on Sep. 22, 1711. Wright was a curious duck, largely self-taught, of a mystical bent, and not by any stretch brilliant, yet capable of penetrating insights about the heavens that completely escaped his more illustrious contemporaries. He is most famous for being the first to argue that the Milky Way, that cloudy band of innumerable stars that runs entirely around the sky, is a key to determining the structure of our Galaxy. Wright did not take the next step, which was to deduce that the Galaxy must be a large thin disk of stars—that conclusion was reached by Immanuel Kant, with Wright as a guide. But Wright was the first to understand that the Milky Way is the vital clue that allows us to determine the nature of stellar systems.

Wright’s work on the Milky Way was included in a beautiful book, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). In addition to a striking mezzotint that depicts stars (including our sun) with planetary systems (first image above), Wright also depicted the known planets and moons of the solar system in 1750 (second image above), and gave us a diagram of the solar system that demonstrates how much bigger the solar system had become, with the inclusion of the elliptical orbits of comets (third image above).

An Original Theory of the Universe was on display in our 2010 exhibition, Thinking Outside the Sphere.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Images from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697, and Voyage of Guillaume Dampier…, 1705,  two books describing pirate William Dampier’s voyage around the world. To learn more about Dampier’s contributions to science visit the exhibit Voyages: Scientific Circumnavigations.

Ole Rømer - Scientist of the Day

Ole Rømer, a Danish astronomer, died on Sep. 19, 1710, at age 65. Rømer is best known for the 8 years he spent at the Paris Observatory, where he was the first to determine, from a study of the moons of Jupiter, that light has a finite speed. But in 1680, Rømer returned to Copenhagen, was appointed professor of astronomy at the University, and spent the remainder of his career using specially constructed instruments, such as his transit instrument (see first image above), to make detailed observations of the planets and stars. The instruments, property of the University, were installed on the top of the famous Rundetårn or Round Tower in Copenhagen (see second image above), but because Rømer was not happy with the observing conditions (it was often windy), he built his own small observatory outside the city. Unfortunately, in 1728, after his death, a terrible fire raced through downtown Copenhagen, and although the stone tower survived, all of Rømer’s instruments and observations perished in the conflagration. Fortunately, his pupil and colleague Peder Horrobow published in 1735 a description of Rømer’s life and work, from which all the engravings above were taken.

The portrait of Rømer was made about 1700 and hangs in the Fredericksborg Palace in Hillerød, Denmark.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Henry Washburn and Nathaniel Langford - Scientists of the Day

On Sep. 18, 1870, a party of explorers rode into Upper Yellowstone Basin and sighted a geyser in full eruption. The expedition was led by Henry Washburn, the newly appointed Surveyor-General of Montana territory, and he was accompanied by Nathaniel Langford and a small contingent of soldiers. The geyser delighted everyone, and they named it “Old Faithful.” Immediately they saw another, even more impressive, which they named “The Beehive,” then another, “The Castle”, and finally, the queen of them all, “The Giantess”. Upon their return, Langford wrote an article for Scribner’s Monthly, which appeared in two parts in May and June, 1871 (see first image above). He presented a very exciting account of their discovery of the Lower and Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, and of the splendors of the Upper Geyser Basin. It is interesting that Langford was less impressed by Old Faithful, which he didn’t even illustrate, than the other geysers, especially The Giantess, which he thought was the grandest sight he had ever seen (see second image above).

There were also several nice general views in the magazine of the Upper and Lower Basin and the Canyon of the Yellowstone. Interestingly, several of these woodcuts in the articles, including that of the Giantess, were made and signed by a young artist who did not even make the trip. His name was Thomas Moran. He would visit Yellowstone later that year, as a member of the Hayden expedition of 1871. One of the products of his trip was a monumental painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), which was hung in the US Capitol and played a significant role in convincing Congress to declare Yellowstone our first National Park in 1872. We display this splendid painting as our last image.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City 

(Source: lhldigital.lindahall.org)