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The Real Stories Behind Our Greatest Scientific Discoveries

Justin Pollard

X-rays were discovered by William Rontgen, but that doesn't mean he was the first to notice them. On the day in 1895 when he made his breakthrough, he was using equipment invented by a German scientist, Philipp Leonard. Lenard had himself modified another piece of equipment, the Crookes Tube, in which cathode rays were first noticed, by inserting an aluminium window in the tube.This was thin enough to let rays leak out into the room. Rontgen noticed that the rays were causing a screen on other side of room to fluoresce, and then that the rays passed through some solid substances, and finally, that they passed through flesh but were absorbed by bone. He sent copies of his paper, and radiograph of wife's hand, complete with wedding ring to several prominent scientists, and to his father, who happened to edit a Vienna newspaper. Within a week the story and photo ahd been picked up by papers around the world. Instant fame for Rontgen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1901 for the discovery. This apparently pushed Leonard over the edge. He had claimed that he was the discoverer of x-rays, since it was via his equipment. Problem that, although he'd noticed the rays, he had thought they were just a sort of cathode ray, and hadn't investigated further. Then, when the Nobel Prize committee deliberated, they decided that providing the equipment was not the same as making a discovery with it, and so awarded the prize solely to Rontgen. Leonard became deeply embittered, and even though he won a Nobel himself in 1905 for earlier work.

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In April 1940, the Germans invaded Denmark., which posed a problem for physicist Niels Bohr, because he had custody of 2 Nobel Prize gold medals. He had won one of his own, but auctioned it for charity. The medals were valuable, since until 1980, they were made of solid 23 carat gold. So Bohr needed to hide them. Burial seemed too unsafe, so he decided to dissolve them. This is easier to say than do, because gold is highly unreactive., but they managed it using aqua regia, a solution of nitric and concentrated hydrochloric acids. The lab was searched by the Germans, but the 2 bottles of orange liquid went unnoticed for the rest of the war. After the war, the gold was recovered from solution, and sent back to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which recoined the medals.

One of the most famous papers in cosmology owes its fame partly because of the names of its authors. The Alpher-Berthe-Gamow paper, a foundation work on the Big Bang, is universally known as the alpha-beta-gamma paper because close resemblance of names. But the coincidence is not quite what it seems. The research was done by a young scientist named Ralph Alpher, supervised by his prof, George Gamow. But Gamow was a mischevious sort, and had a friend, a prominent scientist named Hans Bethe. So when he submitted the paper, he listed the authors as Alpher, Bethe (in absentia) and Gamow. At first Alpher was dismayed to see someone else, who had contributed nothing, appended to his paper simply as a joke.But it contributed to the reception of the work, so he acceded. Gamow was incorrigible, however, and when another scientist joined the project, he tried to get him to change his name to Delter, so that the next work could be signed alpha beta gamma delta. Luckily he declined.

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Louis Pasteur's research into micro-organisms that cause disease began with a study of beer. As a starting lecturer he was short of money. One of his students got him job finding out why his father's brewery sometimes went wrong. Instead of turning sugar beet into alcohol, the fermentation process sometimes turned out lactic acid. looking at samples under the microscope, Pasteur saw a rod-shaped organism which we now know is a bacteria - lactic acid bacillus - which kills the yeast that normally ferments into alcohol. This was revolutionary, because nobody dreamed that fermentation required living organisms, rather than just being a chemical process. But Pasteur went further (because obviously the brewer wanted a solution, not just an explanation). Pasteur suggested that the beet mash be heated to kill the bacteria, before it was seeded with active yeast. This of course became what we now call 'pasteurisation'.

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The late 60's pop song 'Lily the Pink' by The Scaffold, was based on a real person. Lydia Pinkham made a fortune selling her 'Vegetable Compound' - a herbal cure for 'women's problems'. The success based on 3 factors. Firstly, she sincerely believed in what she was selling. Secondly, she ran a huge advertising campaign; by 1878 there were more ads for her product than for anything else in US.But perhaps the most important factor was the contents - the VC was 20% alcohol. It wasn't until 1906 that the US Govt passed the Food and Drug Act which rather unsportingly required all such preparations to declare their alcohol content. This came as rather a shock to the many respectable and sober Women's Christian Temperance Union members who had been largely drunk for the last 30 years.

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Felix Hoffmann, a chemist employed by Bayer AG, had a good couple of weeks in August 1897. First he synthesised salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid, which prevented some of the digestive side effects of the original acid. Took the new compound to his boss, who wasn't very impressed, so Hoffmann went back to his lab and continued playing with acetylating process. He was hoping to make synthetic codeine, but instead just made a more powerful morphine. However, it had some useful properties, particularly soothing coughs and helping sleep. And because some of the experimental subjects said it made them feel very good, even heroic, so the drug was named heroin. Although the Americans quickly realized that it was addictive, and banned it in 1914. But in Britain, it wasn't officially controlled until 1971. With the problems with heroin, Bayer went back to the first compound Hoffmann had synthesised, and called it aspirin, the most widely used drug in history.

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