It is remarkable to think that some of the greatest scientific thinkers who have ever lived, giants such as Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus and Boltzmann, were all born in the last week or so, in early February from 1473 to 1844.
Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, born on this day (20 February) in 1844, is remembered for his work in the development of statistical mechanics, used to predict how the properties of atoms can determine the behaviour of matter. Boltzmann’s pioneering scientific contributions to kinetic theory – which described the speed of atoms in a gas – came at a time when many scientists disbelieved an atom’s very existence.
Over half a millennia ago (540 years ago yesterday in fact), Nicolaus Copernicus was born in a small medieval town in Poland. Copernicus would go on to fundamentally challenge our sense of place in the cosmos, publishing his ideas of the heliocentric universe just two months before his death in May 1543. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, along with many other objects from the history of astronomy, are on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition.
Copernicus’s ideas were supported by Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, born 15 February 1564. After failing to complete his studies in medicine at Pisa, Galileo turned his attention to mathematics. Experiments in 1604 with rolling balls down an inclined plane, led Galileo to deduce the law of falling bodies and show that the speed with which bodies fall is independent of their weight.
In 1609, Galileo reinvented the refracting telescope leading to numerous astronomical findings, including the discovery of four moons of Jupiter, which he published in Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) – on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition. Galileo’s support for Copernicus’s view of a sun-centred solar system brought him into direct opposition with the church and led in 1633 to his imprisonment under house arrest.
Also born in early February were two Naturalists, Charles Darwin (born 12 Feb 1809) and Sir Joseph Banks (13 Feb 1742), who travelled the world – with Banks joining Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific on board HMS Endeavour and Darwin sailing on HMS Beagle – identifying new species (1300 in in the case of Joseph Banks) and exploring geological features and plant and animal life across the globe.
Outside of his travels to far-off lands, including Newfoundland, Tahiti and New Zealand, Banks was known for his promotion of science. On his return to Britain, Banks wrote detailed descriptions of the people and places he had encountered, and later become honorary director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Trustee of the British Museum, before being elected President of the Royal Society in 1778.
Charles Darwin joined a five-year scientific expedition on HMS Beagle, studying a vast array of plants, animals and geological wonders. On his return in 1836, he began to think in earnest about the mechanisms that had generated such variety in nature.
Influenced by the thinking of Thomas Malthus, Darwin developed his theory of evolution through natural selection over the next two decades, only publishing his work after learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection went on to transform the way the natural world was understood across the world.