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)


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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