October: a month of science discovery

The month of October brings us pumpkin-spiced everything, cool weather and all things Halloween. Throughout history, October has also been marked by countless events that changed the course of many scientific disciplines. In this blog post I will present 10 of the most relevant events, which, in my humble opinion, helped thrust their respective fields into new eras of technological innovation.

Oct 9th 1876: The first two-way telephone conversation

In the 19th century, the telegraph was the main form of long-distance communication. Although very successful, it was limited by its Morse code-based system for message transmission and the ability to send and receive one message at a time. Seeking to improve this system, Alexander Graham Bell had begun experimenting with technology for transmission of multiple telegraphs at a time. By 1876 Bell had developed the telephone as a means to “talk through electricity” with the aid of his assistant Thomas A. Watson. In March 1876 Bell spoke to Watson through his telephone prototype from adjacent rooms, having uttered the famous phrase “Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you”. But on October 9th, a milestone had been reached when Bell and Watson had a telephone conversation through outdoor telegraph lines linking Boston to East Cambridge. This event marked the death of the telegraph and the birth of the telephone as a basic tool for long-distance communication.

Oct 6th 1956: Dr. Albert Sabin announces his polio vaccine is ready for mass testing

Poliovirus is the agent responsible for the paralytic disease poliomyelitis and caused one of the most devastating epidemics of the 20th century. Although most poliomyelitis patients develop no signs of the disease, individuals can exhibit a variety of symptoms from partial paralysis to death. Dr. Jonas Salk previously developed an injectable vaccine. However, the Sabin vaccine was delivered orally and did not require a booster like the Salk vaccine. Although the US returned to using the Salk vaccine in 2000, the Sabin vaccine is used widely around the world. Both vaccines are credited with eradicating poliovirus from most countries and saving millions of lives.

Oct. 4th 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik

At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union surprised America when it launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite, marking the official beginning of the space race between the US and the USSR. Having beaten the United States in this achievement, the American public worried about the technological superiority of the Soviet Union. Although the US would eventually launch its own satellite in January 1958, the importance of Sputnik rests in marking a technological achievement for mankind and spurring the beginning of the space age for the US and the world.

Oct 1st 1958: NASA begins its operations

Having been caught off guard by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States Congress passed legislation in July 1958 naming National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the government body in charge of developing and coordinating missions to space. On October 1st, NASA officially began operations, absorbing all 8000 employees of its predecessor NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). The main goals for NASA were furthering human understanding of space through exploration and technological innovation. After 135 missions and 30 years, NASA ended its shuttle program in July 2011 and commenced a new era of space exploration. This new program aims at International Space Station improvements and Missions to Mars, which will lead to advances in aeronautics and technology.

Oct 8th 1958: Dr. Ake Senning implants the first internal pacemaker

By the 1950s the electrical properties stimulating cardiac rhythm were clear to physicians. By 1957 the first battery operated pacemaker had been developed. Until that time, pacemakers had to be plugged into an outlet which was inconvenient for affected patients. In 1958, Dr. Rune Elmqvist developed the first implantable pacemaker, which was surgically implanted by Dr. Ake Senning into Arne Larsson, a Swedish citizen suffering from cardiac arrhythmia. Although this particular model only worked for about 3 hours, this achievement marked the rapid development of novel technology for implantable pacemakers, saving countless lives since then.

Source: http://www.nasa.gov/
Rollout to the launch pad of the Apollo 8 Saturn V on October 9, 1968. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/

Oct 14th 1968: The first live telecast from outer space

The Apollo VII mission was the first to transport an American crew into space, carrying astronauts into low orbit around the Earth. This mission was originally scheduled to be carried out by Apollo I, which never launched due to a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test that killed all three crewmembers on board. Apollo VII was an important technological achievement for NASA, laying the groundwork for the first lunar mission Apollo VIII. Moreover, the American public got their first live glimpse of space when the Apollo VII crew performed the first televised transmission while in orbit. Initially, no cameras had been included on any spacecraft since they were considered to be too heavy and large to be included as part of the equipment. The Apollo VII transmission brought the magic of space to the public’s living room, and led to the development of new technologies allowing us to receive live transmissions from space.

Oct 23rd 1977: Elso Barghoorn discovers pre-cambrian fossils

Elso Barghoorn and his colleagues had been challenging the status quo for the origins of life throughout their careers. In 1977 he announced the discovery of fossilized prokaryotic organisms in Ontario, Canada, the oldest forms of life known to man at the time. This discovery helped determined that the first organisms originated 3.4 billion years ago, demonstrating that life developed rapidly and soon after a suitable environment had formed. Barghoorn’s work changed our understanding of the evolution of early life on Earth and established the existence of unicellular fossils.

Oct. 11th 1995: Molina, Rowland and Crutzen win the Nobel prize in chemistry for their work on the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer

In 1970 Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen had shown that nitrogen oxides react with the ozone in the atmosphere, depleting the ozone content and compromising chemical composition of the “ozone layer”. American scientists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland published a landmark paper in 1974, expanding on Crutzen’s research and showing how chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions from man-made products led to depletion of the ozone layer. The work of these three scientists led to the discovery of the “ozone hole” over the Arctic, which resulted in international changes in legislation limiting the use of CFCs in commercial products.

Oct. 6th 1997: Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner wins the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery of prions

Stanley B. Prusiner began his research on prions when one of his patients died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) identified in humans. Previous studies performed by Tikveh Alper and John Stanley Griffith had shown that the causative agent for CJD was resistant to radiation, leading to the hypothesis that it was not of bacterial or viral origin. In 1982, Prusiner successfully purified the causative agent of scrapie, another type of TSE affecting animals, which he denominated proteinaceous infectious particle, or “prion”. His work founded the field of prion research and led to ground breaking work in the understanding of TSEs.

Oct 16th 2006: Creation of Element 118

Ununoctium, also known as element 118, is the heaviest man-made element and consists of 118 protons and 176 neutrons. This element was created in a particle accelerator in Dubna, Russia and only survived for one millisecond. The announcement of its creation was made October 16th 2006 by a joint collaboration with researchers from Russia’s Joint Institute of Nuclear Research and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had announced the creation of element 118 in 1999, but retracted their results due to an inability to confirm their data. Element 118 marks the heaviest element discovered to date, and it is a testament to man’s ability for creating chemical elements and developing new materials.

Editor: Sharon Kuss


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