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, William 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.

No Venom, No Problem: This Spider Uses a Slingshot to Catch Prey

Courtesy of Sarah Han
Courtesy of Sarah Han

There are thousands of ways nature can kill, and spider species often come up with the most creative methods of execution. Hyptiotes cavatus, otherwise known as the triangle weaver spider, is one such example. Lacking venom, the spider manages to weaponize its silk, using it to hurl itself forward like a terrifying slingshot to trap its prey.

This unusual method was studied up close for a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio. They say it's the only known instance of an animal using an external device—its web—for power amplification.

Hyptiotes cavatus's technique is simple. After constructing a web, the spider takes one of the main strands and breaks it in half, pulling it taut by moving backwards. Then, it anchors itself to a spot with more webbing in the rear. When the spider releases that webbing, it surges forward, propelled by the sudden release of stored energy. In the slingshot analogy, the webbing is the strap and the spider is the projectile.

This jerking motion causes the web to oscillate, tangling the spider's prey further in silk. The spider can repeat this until the web has completely immobilized its prey, a low-risk entrapment that doesn’t require the spider to get too close and risk injury from larger victims.

The triangle weaver spider doesn’t have venom, and it needs to be proactive in attacking and stifling prey. Once a potential meal lands in its web, it’s able to clear distances much more quickly using this slingshot technique than if it crawled over. In the lab, scientists clocked the spider’s acceleration at 2535 feet per second squared.

Spiders are notoriously nimble and devious. Cebrennus rechenbergi, or the flic-flac spider, can do cartwheels to spin out of danger; Myrmarachne resemble ants and even wiggle their front legs like ant antennae. It helps them avoid predators, but if they see a meal, they’ll drop the act and pounce. With H. cavatus, it now appears they’re learning to use tools, too.

[h/t Live Science]

Bad News: The Best Time of the Day to Drink Coffee Isn’t as Soon as You Wake Up


If you depend on coffee to help get you through the day, you can rest assured that you’re not the world's only caffeine fiend. Far from it. According to a 2018 survey, 64 percent of Americans said they had consumed coffee the previous day—the highest percentage seen since 2012.

While we’re collectively grinding more beans, brewing more pots, and patronizing our local coffee shops with increased frequency, we might not be maximizing the health and energy-boosting benefits of our daily cup of joe. According to Inc., an analysis of 127 scientific studies highlighted the many benefits of drinking coffee, from a longer average life span to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Sounds great, right? The only problem is that the benefits of coffee might be diminished depending on the time of day that you drink it. Essentially, science tells us that it’s best to drink coffee when your body’s cortisol levels are low. That’s because both caffeine and cortisol cause a stress response in your body, and too much stress is bad for your health for obvious reasons. In addition, it might end up making you more tired in the long run.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in accordance with your circadian rhythms. This varies from person to person, but in general, someone who wakes up at 6:30 a.m. would see their cortisol levels peak in different windows, including 8 to 9 a.m., noon to 1 p.m., and 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Someone who rises at 10 a.m. would experience cortisol spikes roughly three hours later, and ultra-early risers can expect to push this schedule three hours forward.

However, these cortisol levels start to rise as soon as you start moving in the morning, so it isn’t an ideal time to drink coffee. Neither is the afternoon, because doing so could make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. This means that people who wake up at 6:30 a.m. should drink coffee after that first cortisol window closes—roughly between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.—if they want to benefit for a little caffeine jolt.

To put it simply: "I would say that mid-morning or early afternoon is probably the best time," certified dietitian-nutritionist Lisa Lisiewski told CNBC. "That's when your cortisol levels are at their lowest and you actually benefit from the stimulant itself."

[h/t Inc.]