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Important historic dates in science

December 31: Radioactive battery
In 1951, the first battery to convert radioactive energy to electrical was announced. Invented by Philip Edwin Ohmart of Cincinnati, Ohio, it consisted of two electrochemically dissimilar electrodes separated by a filling gas that was ionized by exposure to the nuclear energy to produce electrical current. Ohmart obtained an emf efficiency of .01% on a cell using magnesium dioxide and lead-dioxide with argon as the gas and Ag110 as the radioactive source.

December 30: Tungsten filaments
In 1913, Dr William David Coolidge patented (#1,082,933) a method for making ductile tunsten for the purpose of making filaments for electric lamps. When Coolidge joined the General Electric Research Laboratory (1905), he was given the task of replacing the fragile carbon filaments in electric light bulbs with tungsten filaments, although tungsten was difficult to work. He developed a way to superheat the metal tunsten in order to draw it out into the fine threads used for lamp filaments. Coolidge then improved the X-ray tube by using a heated tungsten filament cathode in vacuum producing electrons, instead of residual gas molecules in the tube. This permitted higher operating voltages, higher energy X rays and the treatment of deeper-seated tumors.

December 29: Klaus Fuchs
(Born December 29, 1911: Died January 28, 1988)
(Emil) Klaus (Julius) Fuchs was a German-born physicist and spy who was arrested and convicted (1950) for giving vital American and British atomic-research secrets to the Soviet Union. He studied at Kiel and Leipzig, and escaped from Nazi persecution to Britain in 1933. Interned on the outbreak of WW II, he was released and naturalized in 1942. From 1943 he worked with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, U.S., on the atom bomb, and in 1946 became head of the theoretical physics division at Harwell, UK. In 1950 he was sentenced to14 years' imprisonment for disclosing nuclear secrets to the Russians. After 9 years in prison, he was released to East Germany where he worked at a nuclear research centre until his retirement in 1979.

December 28: William Draper Harkins
(Born December 28, 1873: Died March 7, 1951)
American nuclear chemist who investigated the structure of the nucleus, and first revealed the basic process of nuclear fusion, the fundamental principle of the thermonuclear bomb. In 1920, Harkins predicted the existence of the neutron, subsequently discovered by Chadwick's experiment. He made pioneering studies of nuclear reactions with Wilson cloud chambers. In the early 1930's, (with M. D.Kamen) he built a cyclotron. He demonstrated that in neutron bombardment reactions the first step in neutron capture is the formation of an "excited nucleus" of measurable lifetime, which subsequently splits into fragments. He also suggested that subatomic energy might provide enough energy to power the Sun over its lifetime.

December 27: Nuclear test
In 1987 USSR performs nuclear test at Eastern Kazakhstan/Semipalitinsk USSR.

December 26: Radium
In 1898, Polish-French scientist Marie Sklodowska Curie discovered the radioactive element radium while experimenting with pitchblende, a common uranium ore. She had observed that this ore was more radioactive than refined uranium. This indicated that there must be another element, even more radioactive than uranium, mixed in with this ore. During the years between 1899 and 1902, Marie Curie dissolved, filtered and repeatedly crystallized nearly three tons of pitchblende. The goal of that work was a refined sample of the element - the yield was about 0.1 gram. This was enough for spectroscopic examination, and to determine the exact atomic weight of radium. This discovery, along with the element polonium, earned her a second Nobel Prize in 1911.

December 25: Gerhard Herzberg
(Born December 25, 1904: Died March 4, 1999)
German-Canadian physicist and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in determining the electronic structure and geometry of molecules, especially free radicals: groups of atoms that contain odd numbers of electrons. Herzberg is noted for his extensive work on the technique and interpretation of the spectra of molecules. He has elucidated the properties of many molecules, ions, and radicals and also contributed to the use of spectroscopy in astronomy (e.g., in detecting hydrogen in space). His work includes the first measurements of the Lamb shifts (important in quantum electrodynamics) in deuterium, helium, and the positive lithium ion.

December 24: R.E. Schreiber
(Born November 11, 1910: Died December 24, 1998)
R(aemer) E(dgar) Schreiber was an American experimental physicist who during World War II was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to develop the first atomic bombs. Schreiber started work at Los Alamos on the Water Boiler Reactor, which went critical in May 1944, the first reactor to go critical using enriched uranium. He continued to work on improved reactor models until April 1945, when he became a member of the pit assembly team for the Trinity test. After Trinity, Schreib escorted the plutonium core of the Fat Man device to Tinian Island, where he helped assemble the Nagasaki bomb. After the war he stayed on at Los Alamos in the weapons division and helped develop the hydrogen bomb.

December 23: Oppenheimer security clearance suspended
In 1953, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer was notified that his security clearance had been suspended. (He had directed the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bombs used during WW II). There were allegations questioning his trustworthiness for association with Communists. By telegram dated 29 Jan 1954, he requested a hearing. On 4 Mar 1954, he submitted his answer to the original notification. Within two weeks, the Commisssion informed him who would conduct the hearing, to be led by Gordon Gray. The hearing before the Gray Board began 12 Apr 1954. It returned a result on 29 Jun 1954 that by a vote of 4 to1, it had made a decision against reinstating Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer's access to classified information.

December 22: Nuclear tests
1961- United States performs nuclear test at Nevada test site.
1971- USSR perfroms nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya (USSR).
1972- USSR performs underground nuclear tests.

December 21: Radium discovered
Scientists Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium on this day.

December 20: Nuclear electricity
In 1951, at 1:50 p.m., the first electricity ever generated by atomic power began flowing from the EBR-1 turbine generator when Walter Zinn and his Argonne National Laboratory staff of scientists brought EBR-1 to criticality (a controlled, self-sustaining chain reaction) with a core about the size of a football. The reactor was started up and the power gradually increased over several hours. The next day, Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 generated enough electricity to supply all the power for its own building. Additional power and core experiments were then conducted until its decommissioning in December, 1963. Construction began in 1949, between Idaho Falls and Arco, Idaho. Today, EBR-1 is a Registered National Historic Landmark. Other reactors are at the site.

December 19: A. A. Michelson
(Born December 19, 1852: Died May 9, 1931)
Albert Abraham Michelson was a German-born American physicist who established the speed of light as a fundamental constant and pursued other spectroscopic and metrological investigations. He received the 1907 Nobel Prize for Physics "for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid" For the speed of light measurement, he designed a highly accurate interferometer known as the Michelson interferometer and used it to measure precisely the speed of light.With Edward Morley, he also used it in an attempt to measure the velocity of the earth through the ether. This Michelson-Morley experiment eventually led Einstein to his theory of relativity.

December 18: Nuclear power station retired
In 1957, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania, the first large-scale civilian nuclear power plant in the world first fed electricity into the grid for the Pittsburgh area. Shippingport is located on the Ohio River about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. Ground was broken in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower when the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 authorized private nuclear power production in the U.S. He made the official opening dedication on 26 May 1958, a year in which the United States would detonate 77 atomic tests, but one that would also see the first tentative test ban agreement. It was taken out of service in 1982. Decommissioning was completed in 1989.

December 17: Alfred Wolf
(Born February 13, 1923: Died December 17, 1998)
Alfred Peter Wolf was an American nuclear and organic chemist. As a senior chemist at the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory, he made pioneering contributions over nearly 50 years in the field of organic radiochemistry. By the mid-1960's, his fundamental studies in the synthesis of small, radiolabeled compounds grew into a new interest in developing radiotracers labeled with short-lived positron emitting isotopes like carbon-11 so that the tracer method could be applied to visualize biochemical transformations in living systems. His discoveries led to advances in medical imaging, especially the development of positron emission tomography, or PET, a tool now used worldwide to diagnose disease and study the brain's inner workings.

December 16: Johann Wilhelm Ritter
(Born December 16, 1776: Died January 23, 1810)
German physicist who discovered the ultraviolet region of the spectrum (1801) and thus helped broaden man's view beyond the narrow region of visible light to encompass the entire electromagnetic spectrum from the shortest gamma rays to the longest radio waves. After studying Herschel's discovery of infrared radiation, he observed the effects of solar radiation on silver salts and deduced the existence of radiation outside the visible spectrum. He also made contributions to spectroscopy and the study of electricity.

December 15: Chernobyl final shut down
n 2000, the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear plant was ceremoniously permanently shut down in Ukraine - more than 14 years after one of its reactors exploded in the world's worst civil nuclear catastrophe on April 26, 1986. The last working reactor, Number Three, had in fact been shut down the previous week because of technical problems. It was restarted, though not attached to the national grid and at minimum power output, so the world would be able to see it symbolically switched off. Chernobyl had provided Ukraine with around five percent of its electricity from its last working reactor. One by one, Chernobyl's reactors have shut down over the years. After the 1986 disaster, a fire stopped one of the remaining reactors in 1991, and a third shut down in 1996.

December 14: Andrey Dmitriyevich Sakharov
(Born May 21, 1921: Died December 14, 1989)
Soviet nuclear physicist, an outspoken advocate of human rights in the Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, Sakharov returned to pure science and the study of cosmic rays. Two years later, he began work with a secret research group on the development of the hydrogen bomb, and he is believed to have been principally responsible for the Soviets' success in exploding their first thermonuclear bomb (1954). With I.E. Tamm, he proposed controlled thermonuclear fusion by confining an extremely hot ionized plasma in a torus-shaped magnetic bottle, known as a tokamak device. He became politically more active in the 1960s, campaigned against nuclear proliferation, and from 1980 to 1986, he was banished and kept under police surveillance.

December 13: Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner
(Born December 13, 1780: Died March 24, 1849)
German chemist whose observation (1829) that when certain triads of elements were arranged in order of increasing atomic mass, the mass of the central member was approximately the average of the other two, and intermediate in chemical properties between the other two elements. The triads are now found as consecutive members of the groups of the periodic table, such as: lithium, sodium, and potassium; calcium, strontium, and barium; and chlorine, bromine, and iodine. Also, he invented a lamp in which hydrogen ignited on contact with a platinum sponge (1823). Although the lamp had limited application, Döbereiner was interested in catalysis in general. He discovered the catalytic action of manganese dioxide in the decomposition of potassium chlorate.

December 12: daVinci manuscript
In 1980, Leonardo daVinci's 36-sheet manuscript Codex Leicester was auctioned at Christie's. It was bought by Armand Hammer for $4.5 million. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a complete manuscript. (It has subsequently been resold). The Codex Leicester, written 1506-10, embraces a wide variety of topics, from astronomy to hydrodynamics, and includes Leonardo's observations and theories related to rivers and seas; the properties of water; rocks and fossils; air; and celestial light. All of this is expressed in his signature mirror writing, as well as in more than 300 pen-and-ink sketches, drawings, and diagrams, many of them illustrating imagined or real experiments.

December 11: Marie Curie earns second Nobel Prize
In 1911, at Stockholm, Sweden, Marie Curie became the first person to be awarded a second Nobel prize. She had isolated radium by electrolyzing molten radium chloride. At the negative electrode the radium formed an amalgam with mercury. Heating the amalgam in a silica tube filled with nitrogen at low pressure boiled away the mercury, leaving pure white deposits of radium. This second prize was for her individual achievements in Chemistry, whereas her first prize (1903) was a collaborative effort with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel in Physics for her contributions in the discovery of radium and polonium.

December 10: Walter Henry Zinn
(Born December 10, 1906: Died February 14, 2000.)
Canadian-American nuclear physicist who contributed to the U.S. atomic bomb project during World War II and to the development of the nuclear reactor. He collaborated with Leo Szilard, investigating atomic fission. In 1939, they demonstrated that uranium underwent fission when bombarded with neutrons and that part of the mass was converted into energy. This work led him into research into the construction of the atomic bomb during WW II. After the war Zinn started the design of an atomic reactor and, in 1951, he built the first breeder reactor. In a breeder reactor, the core is surrounded by a "blanket" of uranium-238 and neutrons from the core convert this into plutonium-239, which can also be used as a fission fuel.

December 9: James Rainwater
(Born December 9, 1917: Died May 31, 1986)
Leo James Rainwater was an American physicist who won a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1975 for his part in determining the asymmetrical shapes of certain atomic nuclei. During WW II, Rainwater worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. In 1949 he began formulating a theory that not all atomic nuclei are spherical, as was then enerally believed. The theory was tested experimentally and confirmed by Danish physicists Aage N. Bohr and Ben R. Mottelson. For their work the three scientists were awarded jointly the 1975 Nobel Prize for Physics. He also conducted valuable research on X rays and took part in Atomic Energy Commission and naval research projects.

December 8: Atoms for Peace Speech
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his "Atoms for Peace" speech in an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations. He proposed the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency to devise "methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind ... to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world." This initiated commercial nuclear power. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Congress passed the 1954 Atomic Energy Act which permitted, for the first time, the wide use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

December 7: George B. Kistiakowsky
(Born November 18, 1900: Died December 7, 1982)
George Bogdan Kistiakowsky was a Russian American chemist who worked on developing the first atomic bomb but later advocated banning nuclear weapons. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, and taught chemistry at Princeton University then Harvard (1930-71). He served as special assistant to President Eisenhower for science and technology (1959-61). As head of the explosives division of the Los Alamos Laboratory during WW II (1944-46), he oversaw 600 people developing explosives for the first atom bomb. The conventional explosives are used for its detonation to uniformly compress the plutonium sphere and achieve critical mass. In 1977, he became chairman of the Council for a Livable World, which opposes nuclear war.

December 6: George Eugene Uhlenbeck
(Born December 6, 1900: Died October 31, 1988)
Dutch-American physicist who, with Samuel A. Goudsmit, proposed the concept of electron spin.

December 5: Cecil Frank Powell
(Born December 5, 1903: Died August 9, 1969)
British physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1950 for his development of the photographic method of studying nuclear processes and for the resulting discovery of the pion (pi-meson), a heavy subatomic particle. The pion proved to be the hypothetical particle proposed in 1935 by Yukawa Hideki of Japan in his theory.

December 4: Samuel Abraham Goudsmit
(Born July 11, 1902: Died December 4, 1978)
Dutch-born U.S. physicist who, with George E. Uhlenbeck, a fellow graduate student at the University of Leiden, Neth., formulated (1925) the concept of electron spin. It led to recognition that spin was a property of protons, neutrons, and most elementary particles and to a fundamental change in the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics. Goudsmit also made the first measurement of nuclear spin and its Zeeman effect with Ernst Back (1926-27), developed a theory of hyperfine structure of spectral lines, made the first spectroscopic determination of nuclear magnetic moments (1931-33), contributed to the theory of complex atoms and the theory of multiple scattering of electrons, and invented the magnetic time-of-flight mass spectrometer (1948).

December 3: Karl Manne Georg Siegbahn
(Born December 3, 1886: Died September 26, 1978)
Swedish physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1924 for his discoveries and investigations in X-ray spectroscopy. In 1914 he began his studies in the new science of x-ray spectroscopy which had already established from x-ray spectra that there were two distinct 'shells' of electrons within atoms, each giving rise to groups of spectral lines, labeled 'K' and 'L'. In 1916, Siegbahn discovered a third, or 'M', series. (More were to be found later in heavier elements.) Refining his x-ray equipment and technique, he was able to significantly increase the accuracy of his determinations of spectral lines. This allowed him to make corrections to Bragg's equation for x-ray diffraction to allow for the finer details of crystal diffraction.

December 2: Atomic chain reaction
In 1942, the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction was demonstrated in Chicago, Illinois. At the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the world's first artificial nuclear chain reaction, in a makeshift lab underneath the University's football stands at Stagg Field. Work on the experimental pile had begun on 16 Nov 1942. It was a prodigious effort. Physicists and staffers, working around the clock, built a lattice of 57 layers of uranium metal and uranium oxide embedded in graphite blocks. A wooden structure supported the graphite pile. The chain reaction was part of the Manhattan Project, a secret wartime project to develop nuclear weapons, which initiated the modern nuclear age. This was a discovery that changed the world.

December 1: Bernhard Voldemar Schmidt
(Born March 30, 1879: Died December 1, 1935)
Astronomer and optical instrument maker who invented the telescope named for him. In 1929, he devised a new mirror system for reflecting telescopes which overcame previous problems of aberration of the image. He used a vacuum to suck the glass into a mold, polishing it flat, then allowing in to spring back into shape. The Schmidt telescope is now widely used in astronomy to photograph large sections of the sky because of its large field of view and its fine image definition. He lost his arm as a child while experimenting with explosives. Schmidt spent the last year of his life in a mental hospital.

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Photos courtsey of Today in Science