Category Archives: Science

December 27th – Charles Darwin sets sail on the H.M.S. Beagle

The H.M.S. Beagle on the southern tip of South America.

The H.M.S. Beagle at the southern tip of South America.

On this day in 1831, Charles Darwin began his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin’s discoveries the 5 year long journey on-board the Beagle led Darwin to postulate his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Darwin was brought on-board the Beagle to act as an expert geologist for the voyage. The Beagle was commissioned to conduct geological and hydrographical surveys of the southern coast of South America, a mission that Darwin assisted in tremendously. Besides his geological duties, Darwin was permitted to take on-board specimens from the places the Beagle would visit.

Darwin would publish The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839, documenting Darwin’s observations and adventures aboard the Beagle. Reflecting on what he saw during this voyage on the Beagle, Darwin published On the Origin of Species twenty years later (1859). On the Origin of Species was Darwin’s seminal work, fundamentally changing our ideas on the evolution of species.

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December 23rd – The first living coelacanth, a living fossil, is caught

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

On this day in 1938, a living coelacanth was fished out and caught off the coast of South Africa. What is remarkable about this fish is that the coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct 68 million years ago.

On December 23rd, 1938, Marjorie Latimer, a curator of a small natural sciences museum in East London, South Africa, was speaking to her fisherman friend who informed her of an unique fish that got caught in his net. According to Latimer, the fish appeared to be “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent markings.” Latimer had never seen this fish before, and proceeded to make a sketch of the fish. She then mailed this sketch to J. L. B. Smith, a ichthyology (the study of fish) professor at Rhodes University, also in South Africa. On January 3rd, 1939, the professor telegraphed Latimer back with the following message: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS”. The professor recognized that the catch on December 23rd was that of a coelacanth, a fish that existed in the time of the dinosaurs and thought to have gone extinct a long time ago.

The coelacanth is commonly called a “living fossil”, or an organism that has changed very little over an evolutionary long time. Other living fossils that exist today include the gingko tree, horseshoe crabs, crocodiles, hagfish, the nautilus, and mudskippers.

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December 12th – Marconi receives the first transatlantic radio signal


Marconi raising his kite at Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland to pick up the radio signal from Cornwall, December 12th, 1901.

On this day in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, received the first transatlantic radio signal.

Prior to the transatlantic radio signal, telegraph messages travelling across the Atlantic Ocean had to be transmitted through an actual physical cable that was laid down on the floor of the Atlantic. The total time taken to transmit the message using the physical telegraph cables cable was a matter of minutes, far shorter than the ten days it would take to deliver a message by ship moving across the Atlantic. Wireless long-distance telegraph messaging had yet to be developed, until Marconi, using his brand new radio technology, did so in 1901.

In 1901, Marconi wished to demonstrate the viability and utility of his new radio. Earlier in the year, Marconi established a radio transmitter in Cornwall, England (the county in the southwestern tip of Great Britain), which served to emanate strong radio signals. On December 12th, 1901, Marconi was at Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland to receive signals from Cornwall. Using a 152-metre kite supported antenna to pick up the signal, on that day, Marconi successfully received the signals transmitted by Cornwall. This scientific achievement was remarkable to the people living in the nascent twentieth century, and the reaction to it (I am postulating here of course) would be similar to the reaction we twenty-first century citizens had of the first colour pictures we saw of Mars’ terrain in 2012 by the Curiosity Rover.

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December 10th – The Nobel Prize is awarded for the first time

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement along with a monetary prize.

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement, along with a monetary prize.

On this day in 1901, the Nobel Prize was awarded for the first time in Stockholm, Sweden. Since its inception over 100 years ago, a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations have been awarded with the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize takes its name from Alfred Nobel, a prominent Swedish engineer and inventor. Besides the award that contains his name, Nobel is known as the inventor of dynamite, one of the greatest paradoxes in history. Upon his death in 1896, Nobel’s last will specified that his wealth be used to fund a series of prizes for those who contribute the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. Almost $190 million (current day monetary value) was used to establish these Nobel Prizes.

On December 10th, 1901, five years to the day after Alfred Nobel passed away, the first Nobel Prizes were handed out. Amongst the inaugural class of Nobel laureates were Wilhelm Röntgen (Physics) for his discovery of X-rays and Henry Dunant (Peace) for founding the International Red Cross. Here are some other fun facts:

  • The Nobel Prize for Economics was not one of the original five prizes, and was only awarded after 1969.
  • Only two individuals have multiple Nobel Prizes in different fields. These individuals are Marie Curie for Physics (1903, for her work in radiation phenomenon) and Chemistry (1911, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium) and Linus Pauling for Chemistry (1954, for his work on the nature of the chemical bond, more specifically orbital hybridization) and Peace (1962, for his work in campaigning against nuclear weapons testing).

A total of 23* Canadians have won a Nobel Prize. The asterisk indicates that some of these individuals were not born in Canada nor were Canadian citizens, but performed much of the work the Nobel Prize recognized while in Canada. Here are five notable Canadian individuals who have won:

  1. Ernest Rutherford for Chemistry (1908). You may know him as the scientist behind Bohr-Rutherford diagrams from high school chemistry class. Rutherford’s work on the half-life of radioactive substances while at McGill University in Montreal was the basis of his Nobel Prize (Rutherford was, in fact, a Kiwi, having been born in New Zealand).
  2. Frederick Banting for Physiology/Medicine (1923). Banting was rewarded the Nobel Prize for his work in (co)discovering insulin while a the University of Toronto. Prior to his arrival at Toronto, Banting was a faculty member at the University of Western Ontario, teaching orthopedics and anthropology.
  3. Lester B. Pearson for Peace (1957). The future prime minister of Canada won his Nobel Prize for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis through his work at the United Nations.
  4. John Polanyi for Chemistry (1986). This Hungarian-born scientist won his Nobel Prize for work on chemical kinetics. Today, Polanyi still teaches chemistry at the University of Toronto.
  5. Alice Munro for Literature (2013). This year’s Nobel laureate in literature received her prize for her work on the short story. Munro is a fellow alumnus of the University of Western Ontario (Go Mustangs!), having studied English and journalism during her time here as an undergraduate student.

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