Scientist of the Day

Oliver Heaviside

May 18, 2018

Oliver Heaviside, a British mathematical physicist, was born May 18, 1850. Heaviside had a rough life; he was partially deaf from a childhood bout with scarlet fever, and his parents could not afford to keep him in school after he was sixteen, so he had no formal education at all. Yet he chose to pursue an interest in the mathematics of electromagnetism, stimulated by an encounter with James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) and a desire to understand it. Fortunately he was very intelligent, and he had an uncle-in-law, Charles Wheatstone, a famous electrical engineer, who noticed and encouraged the young man’s work and got him a job in the telegraphy business. It took Heaviside years to master Maxwell’s book, but when he did, he had a better comprehension of it than most of his contemporaries. Heaviside invented something called vector calculus, and with it he was able to reduce Maxwell’s 20 equations that described the interaction of changing electrical and magnetic fields to just four equations, the familiar four that one encounters in any course in advanced physics…

Barthelemy Faujas-de-Saint-Fond

May 17, 2018

Barthélemy Faujas-de-Saint-Fond, a French geologist, paleontologist, and scientific traveler, was born May 17, 1741. Faujas wrote a large folio on the extinct volcanoes of central France, which we included in our 2004 exhibition, Vulcan’s Forge, and an equally large folio about a fossil found in Maastricht, Holland, which Faujas thought was a crocodile, but was later shown to be an extinct mosasaur, and which we displayed in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life.

Louis Vauquelin

May 16, 2018

Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, a French chemist, was born May 16, 1763. In 1798, Vauquelin isolated a new element, chromium, from an ore called crocoite. Crocoite is mostly lead chromate and has a deep orange color (second image). Intrigued by the possibility of making a new pigment, by 1809 Vauquelin had learned how to produce a bright yellow powder, chrome yellow, which is lead chromate in a different form than found in crocoite…

Petrus Plancius

May 15, 2018

Petrus Plancius, a Dutch map and globe maker, died May 15, 1622; his date of birth is unknown. In the late 16th century, the Dutch began a series of trading voyages around Africa to the East Indies that would culminate in the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. Navigation was initially difficult, because there were no accurate maps of the southern skies. In 1595, Plancius commissioned a pilot, Pieter Keyser, to record the position of as many southern stars as possible on a voyage to the Indies. Keyser catalogued about 130 stars, probably with the help of a colleague, Frederick de Houtman. Keyser died in 1596, before his return, but Plancius obtained the observations and proceeded to divide the southern stars up into 12 constellations…

Lorenzo Sitgreaves

May 14, 2018

Lorenzo Sitgreaves, a U.S. Army officer and explorer, died May 14, 1888; his age and date of birth are unknown. In 1849, a Topographical Engineer named James Simpson had led an expedition to survey the country west of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Simpson survey got as far as the Zuni pueblo in western New Mexico before turning back. In 1851, Sitgreaves was ordered to continue the survey west, to the Colorado River and thence all the way to the Gulf of California. One person he inherited from the Simpson expedition was Richard H. Kern, an expedition artist…

Pieter Camper

May 11, 2018

Pieter Camper, a Dutch naturalist also known as Petrus Camper, was born May 11, 1722, in Leiden. Camper was an avid collector of fossils, and in 1782 he acquired the collection of a surgeon, Jean Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s fossils had mostly been dug out of quarries at St. Pietersberg mountain near Maastricht, and included a huge jaw of an unknown animal. Camper described the specimen in a letter to the Royal Society of London in 1786 and ventured that the jaw belonged to a large toothed whale. Another specimen, this time a skull with both jaws, was discovered in the same quarry and acquired by a Frenchman, Barthélemy Faujas-de-St.-Fond, who disagreed with Camper’s identification, and thought it belonged to a large crocodile. After Camper died in 1789, Faujas published a beautiful account of the fossils of St. Pietersberg, illustrating both his and Camper’s specimens with fine engravings, and adding a fanciful print showing the supposed discovery of the skull. We displayed this engraving in out 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life…