Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

6 Great Scientists Who Were Born on Christmas Day

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

From the man who discovered titanium to a prehistoric plant expert, these Christmas kids helped us better understand the natural world and our place within it.

1. JOHN PHILLIPS (1800-1874)

John Phillips was born on December 25, 1800. In 1808, when he was just 7, he lost both of his parents in quick succession and was taken in by his uncle William Smith, a surveyor and fossil-hunter known as the “Father of English Geology.” Later in life, Phillips also became a great geologist, and in the 1840s, he drew upon his uncle’s work to identify and name three significant eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. He also authored several papers on the subject of astronomy.

2. WILLIAM GREGOR (1761-1817)

A British chemist, mineralogist, painter, clergyman, and Christmas kid, Gregor is primarily remembered as the man who discovered titanium. He first came across a sample of this element on the sandy banks of a stream that ran near the Cornish village of Manaccan (also spelled Menaccan) in 1790. The following year, Gregor wrote a paper about the newfound metal, and in honor of its place of origin, he proposed calling the element either menacanite or menachine. Ultimately, though, the German chemist Martin Klaproth independently discovered titanium in 1796, and this was the name that stuck [PDF].

3. RICHARD E. SHOPE (1901-1966)


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In 1918 and 1919, an influenza pandemic killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide; in the United States, 28 percent of all citizens came down with the disease, which claimed 10 times as many American lives as World War I. Meanwhile, pigs in the Midwestern U.S. were dying of a similar illness.

Richard E. Shope, a pathologist employed by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, suspected the two outbreaks were related. So in 1928, Shope visited Iowa—where he had been born on Christmas Day in 1901—to investigate a possible link between the two illnesses.

At the time, scientists believed that influenza was caused by a bacteria of some kind—so when he arrived in Iowa, Shope began searching infected swine for microscopic suspects. He managed to identify a bacteria species that was present in most of the runny-nosed pigs he examined. However, when he injected this one-celled organism into healthy pigs, they failed to contract the disease.

Starting again, Shope looked for other potential disease-carriers within the sick pigs’ mucus. In 1931, he filtered the samples to remove any bacteria and introduced this new filtrate to some non-infected swine. Soon, the control pigs came down with a mild case of porcine influenza, proving that the flu was caused by a “filter-passing agent”—in this case, a virus. When Shope combined the virus with the bacteria, the test animals came down with more severe symptoms. Encouraged by his results, American and British scientists conducted a series of tests, which showed that human and pig influenza were indeed close relatives. Building off of Shope’s research, a British team went on to isolate the human influenza virus for the very first time in 1933. If it hadn’t been for this breakthrough, flu vaccines might not exist today.

4. GERHARD HERZBERG (1904-1999)

Spectroscopy is a technique that allows scientists to study the interactions between matter and electromagnetic radiation. By most accounts, Gerhard Herzberg literally wrote the book on this subject: His classic three-volume textbook titled Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure has been nicknamed “the spectroscopist’s bible” [PDF].

Herzberg came into the world on December 25, 1904 in Hamburg, Germany. His passion for science blossomed at an early age: As a boy, he could often be found reading up on chemistry and astronomy in his spare time. By the time Herzberg turned 25, he’d earned a Ph.D. in engineering physics and gotten 12 scientific papers published. In the mid-1930s, the rise of Nazism drove Herzberg and his Jewish wife—fellow spectroscopist Lusie Oettinger—out of their native Germany. They relocated to Canada, which Herzberg would call home for the better part of seven decades. Over time, several different fields—including astronomy and chemistry—would benefit from his command of spectroscopy. Using the process, Herzberg was able to detect hydrogen gas molecules in Uranus and Neptune’s atmospheres in 1952. Spectroscopy also helped the scientist shed some new light on free radicals (atoms or groups of atoms with an odd number of electrons). Herzberg’s incredible body of work earned him the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1971.

5. INNA A. DOBRUSKINA (1933-2014)

Paleobotanist Inna Dobruskina was arguably the world’s leading authority on plant life during the Triassic period, which occurred between 252 and 201 million years ago. She was born in one of Moscow’s “communal apartments” on December 25, 1933. As an adult, she taught at the Geological Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences—and risked incarceration by secretly distributing anti-Communist pamphlets for several years. In 1989, she emigrated to Israel, where she became a faculty member at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her life’s work took her around the world; by the time Drobuskina passed away in 2014, she’d prospected Triassic deposits in such countries as China, France, Austria, South Africa, Russia, and the United States [PDF].

During her days in the U.S.S.R., Dobruskina was often confronted with workplace sexism. On one Sino-Soviet expedition along the Amur River, her male subordinates dared her to imbibe a shot of undiluted alcohol. Determined to put them all in their place, Dobruskina gulped down enough to fill an entire 250-milliliter glass (a shot is just 44 milliliters). Afterwards, the men on that team never tried to challenge her again.

6. ADOLF WINDAUS (1876-1959)

Another Nobel laureate who happened to have been born on Christmas Day, this Berlin native took home the 1928 Nobel Prize for chemistry. The award was granted to Windaus in recognition of the lifetime’s worth of research he’d conducted on sterols, a class of organic compounds that includes cholesterol. Windaus’s interest in this topic began shortly after he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Freiburg. At the time, little was known about sterols, and the scientist dedicated his career to plugging the gaps in our understanding of them. Through careful research, Windaus would discover that these compounds are closely akin to bile acids. He also learned that a fungal sterol called ergosterol can be utilized to cure rickets. Furthermore, it was Windaus who first determined the chemical composition of Vitamin D.

BONUS: ISAAC NEWTON (1642/43-1726/27)


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If you could somehow resurrect Isaac Newton for an interview, he’d tell you that he was born on December 25, 1642—but modern historians cite January 4, 1643 as his actual birthday.

Confused? Take it up with Julius Caesar. In 45 BCE, the Roman dictator implemented a standardized, 365-day calendar (with leap years every four years, eventually) we now call the “Julian calendar.” Unfortunately, it relied on astronomical calculations that overestimated the time it takes the Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun by 11 minutes and 14 seconds. As the centuries passed, those extra minutes and seconds added up; by the mid-1500s, the Julian calendar had fallen about 10 days out of sync with the planet’s rotation. Clearly, something had to be done. So in 1582 CE, Pope Gregory XIII mandated a new calendar. Dubbed the “Gregorian calendar,” it was designed to facilitate some much-needed leap year reform (among other things). The Pope also erased the synchronization problem that the Julian Calendar had created by eliminating 10 full days from 1582. So Thursday, October 4 of that year was immediately followed by Friday, October 15.

But while Roman Catholic countries like France and Spain adopted the Gregorian calendar right away, Great Britain—Newton’s birthplace—didn’t follow suit until 1752. When the UK and its colonies finally implemented this calendar, they did so by striking 11 days from existence, doing away with September 3 through September 13. At the time, Ben Franklin is said to have remarked, “It is pleasant for an old man to go to sleep on September 2 and not have to wake up until September 14.”

By then, Isaac Newton had been dead for years. According to the Julian Calendar, he was born in 1642 and died in 1726. However, for consistency’s sake, historians have retroactively adjusted all pre-1752 years to conform to the Gregorian calendar—so today’s scholars cite January 4, 1643 as Newton’s birthday and March 31, 1727 as his death day (another part of the reform was to move when the New Year was celebrated, meaning Newton died before the new year under the Julian Calendar, but after under Gregorian). So there you have it: Arguably the greatest scientist in history both is and isn’t a Christmas baby.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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