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140th Birthday miscellany

Nature volume 462, pages 4849 (05 November 2009) | Download Citation

With this issue, it is 140 years since Nature first appeared on 4 November 1869. To mark the anniversary, these two pages offer a miscellany from that issue and from 1889, 1909, 1929, 1949, 1969 and 1989.

4 November 1869. Contributors to the first issue concern themselves with such topics as the fertilization of winter-flowering plants, meetings of “German naturalists and physicians at Innsbruck” and the American Philosophical Society, and with papers in Zeitschrift für Chemie and Giornale di Scienze di Palermo. Other news of the day features the opening of the Suez Canal, worry about the welfare of the explorer David Livingstone, and the following:

The “Female Physicians” question, thanks to Professor Masson, has made a great stride during the past week. Ladies are to be admitted to study Medicine at Edinburgh University. Imagine the feelings of the non-contents when Professor Masson, in a final outburst, described their argumentation as “rampageous mysticism, dashed with drivel from Anacreon!”

7 November 1889. Four pages in this issue are devoted to a dense but sweeping survey of the science of the preceding 20 years. In chemistry, the happy conclusion is that “the periodic law of Mendeleeff has become established as a generalization of the first importance”. In the physical sciences, “The pregnant suggestion of Maxwell that light is an electro-magnetic phenomenon has borne good fruit”. A comment on biology has a cryptic sting in the tail:

The Suez Canal, which opened 140 years ago. Image: POPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Apart from Darwinism, the most remarkable development of biological studies during these “twice ten tedious years” is undoubtedly the sudden rise and gigantic progress of our knowledge of the Bacteria ... We now know, through the labours of Toussaint, Chauveau, Pasteur, and Koch, of a number of diseases which are definitely caused by Bacteria. We have also learnt from Pasteur how to control the attack of some of these dangerous parasites. Within these twenty years the antiseptic surgery founded by Sir Joseph Lister has received its full measure of trial and confirmation, whilst his opportunities and those of his fellow-countrymen for making further discoveries of a like kind have been ignorantly destroyed by an Act of Parliament.

7 November 1889. The twentieth anniversary issue could also find space for the following anecdote. The scene could have been drawn from a novel by Thomas Hardy (then in full creative flow; Tess of the d'Urbervilles was published in 1891).

During the terrific storm of the 12th of July last, a labourer's cottage was struck by lightning at Leagrave, near here. The lightning descended, according to an eye-witness's report, like a “spout of fire,” and struck and descended the chimney, which it destroyed. In the room below there was an old shepherd, an invalid woman, a child and a shepherd's dog. The shepherd was sitting in a chair leaning on a stick, a kettle was boiling on the fire, and the door was open. The lightning entered the room simultaneously by the chimney and an adjoining window. The window was utterly destroyed, and the kettle was thrown from the fire across the room, the stick on which the shepherd was leaning was torn from his hand and also thrown across the room, the lightning entered a cupboard containing glass and crockery and destroyed every article, and plaster was torn from the walls. The man and woman remained unhurt, but the child was thrown down and its knees stiffened. The dog was struck perfectly stiff, “like a log of wood,” and was considered dead. The room seemed full of fire, water, and sulphur, and the occupants said the smell of sulphur was so strong that they would certainly have been suffocated had it not been for the open door. After the storm had abated, the dog, with all its limbs stiff, was laid in a barn, where it very slowly and partially recovered. It long remained both deaf and blind, and was entirely dependent upon smell for its recognition of persons and things.

C. V. Raman, photographed in 1930. Image: BETMANN/CORBIS

4 November 1909. A 20-year-old Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman writes from India about vibrations in acoustics, one of his preoccupations. His greater fame rests on his subsequent discovery of a “new kind of radiation or light emission from atoms and molecules” — the Raman effect — for which he won a Nobel prize in 1930.

It is generally recognised that the nodes of a string which is maintained permanently in oscillation in two or more loops cannot be points of absolute rest, as the energy requisite for the maintenance of the vibrations is transmitted through these points. I have not, however, seen anywhere a discussion or experimental demonstration of some peculiar properties of this small motion. A brief note may therefore be of interest.

In the first place, the small motion at the node is in a phase which is different from that of the rest of the string. The exact difference of phase is shown by a dynamical investigation to be a quarter of an oscillation. The motion is of very small amplitude, and it might therefore be thought a difficult matter to verify this experimentally. I have, however, devised some convenient arrangements with which this can be effected. I shall here mention only one method: this was to compound the oscillation at every point on the string with another perpendicular to it of half the frequency, and to observe the compound oscillation at the nodes and elsewhere.

Such a compound oscillation can easily be maintained permanently by having the string attached to the prong of an electrically maintained tuning-fork, so that it lies in a plane perpendicular to the prongs, but in a direction inclined to the line of their vibration. When the load on the string is slightly greater than that necessary for the most vigorous maintenance, points on the string describe parabolic arcs with concavities in opposite directions in alternate loops, the whole forming a beautiful and interesting type of stationary vibration. This is not, however, the stage convenient for observing the small motion at the nodes. When the tension of the string is relaxed, so as to make its vibration stronger, points on the string, i.e. except the node, describe 8 curves. The curve described by the node is neither a straight line nor an 8 curve, but is a very flat parabola. From this, the phase-relation between the small motion at the nodes and the large motion elsewhere is obvious ...

C. V. Raman

2 November 1929. “Our Astronomical Column” was an enduring feature, with reports such as this:

La Science Moderne for September contains an article on Mars by A. Nodon, president of the Astronomical Society of Bordeaux. He reproduces several drawings made by E. M. Antoniadi at Meudon and J. Comas Sola at Barcelona. A description of the temperature measures of Menzel, Coblentz, and Lampland leads to the conclusion that the conditions are likely to be suitable for the presence of vegetation, and that the various tints observed in the darker regions of the disc are compatible with this view of their nature. Some of the drawings show numbers of small round dark markings, the positions of which appear to change between one opposition and the next. It is noted that snow or frost on the ground can be distinguished from cloud or mist in the air by the greater permanence in the position of the former. There are some speculations about the future of the earth; it is suggested that in the distant future the ocean may have largely disappeared, and the height of the mountains have been greatly diminished by denudation, which would bring about a resemblance to the present condition of Mars.

5 November 1949. The era of mass air-transport dawns with the Comet airliner. After early success, a problem with metal fatigue caused the plane to be grounded and undergo redesign before re-entering service. In updated form, a later incarnation of the aircraft is the Nimrod.

A de Havilland 'Comet' jet-propelled air liner recently carried out a long-distance flight, as part of its trials, from London to Castel Benito, Tripoli, a distance of 2,980 miles in a total flying time of six hours thirty-eight minutes — an average speed of just over 450 miles an hour. This is more than 100 miles an hour faster than the authenticated speed of any established air liner at present in use. It left London at 6:30 a.m. and, after a two-hour period in Tripoli for refuelling, it arrived back in London at 4 p.m. A performance such as this suggests that this type of machine should be taken up immediately by air transport concerns everywhere. Quantity production is already in hand by Messrs. de Havilland; but it is not expected that they will be operating on the trunk services of the British Overseas Airways Corporation until 1952–53.

Passengers board a Comet airliner in 1952. Image: HULTON-DEUTSCH COLECTION/CORBIS

1 November 1969. An editorial spares no sarcasm in commenting on the unseemly scramble to ban cyclamates in Britain.

The cyclamate bandwagon has made farcical progress in the past week, though it is hard to say whether scientific advisers or the politicians who manipulated them look the more ridiculous. Within a week of the United States ban on the artificial sweetener, at least five other countries had followed suit, in several instances before their advisers had seen the new evidence. From the precipitate unction with which politicians in Sweden, Finland, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom proclaimed their renunciation of the artificial sweetener, it might have been supposed that cyclamates presented some kind of hazard to health. If the new evidence had shown that they transmuted into arsenic at the drop of a hat, the substances could not have been banned more quickly ... The postscript to this seven day wonder has been afforded by a spokesman at the Ministry of Agriculture. Asked why such terrible speed was necessary, he admitted that “Public opinion wanted an answer straight away. We'd have been caught very much with our head in the sand if we didn't do anything about the cyclamates. We had either to ban them or prove them harmless”. Ostrich-like or not, even the fleet footed Ministry of Agriculture could not prove cyclamates harmless at seven days' notice and, discretion being the better part of valour, it only remained for housewives to be soothed with advice as to what foods and beverages were likely to contain the deadly substance before a grateful public could sink back, probably to soothe itself with a well earned cigarette, confident in the knowledge that its political and scientific guardians would leave no stone unturned to protect the nation's health, save any such as might be inconveniently heavy to uproot.

2 November 1989. Research on the cell cycle is in highly fruitful mode. A paper by Kathleen L. Gould and Paul Nurse, of which the following is the title, was part of the stream of discovery that culminated in a Nobel prize shared by Leland H. Hartwell, Tim Hunt and Nurse in 2001.

Tyrosine phosphorylation of the fission yeast cdc2+ protein kinase regulates entry into mitosis

Fission yeast. Image: S. GSCHMEISSNER/SPL

K. L. Gould & P. Nurse, ICRF Cell Cycle Group, Microbiology Unit, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford

2 November 1989. Virginia Trimble brings data to bear on an enduring fact of academic life.

For unto him that hath ... The concept of P-selection, by which graduates of the more prestigious (P) universities tend to publish longer than those from other (NP) universities, is herewith introduced into the literature. If you really want a career in scientific research, then get your PhD from the most prestigious university that will take you ... To be precise, astronomers who received their doctoral degrees from a university that ranks repeatedly among the 'top three' American astronomical PhD programmes continue to publish in the field about twice as long as those with degrees from a university that ranks in the 'second ten'.

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