In 1859

In 1859, Louis Pasteur was just beginning a series of experiments disproving the theory of spontaneous generation.

In 1859, diseases were thought to be caused by miasma — bad air — despite John Snow’s work on the 1854 cholera outbreak in London.

In 1859, Gustav Kirchhoff formulated the law of black-body radiation.

In 1859, scientists believed that the atom was as small as particles got.

In 1859, James Clerk Maxwell was researching electricity and magnetism. Three years later he would make the astounding claim that light was electromagnetic in nature.

In 1859, scientists believed that light moved through an invisible medium called the luminiferouos aether.

In 1859, Gregor Mendel was in the middle of his experiments with pea plants that would lead to his laws of inheritance.

In 1859, the first recognized fossil of an ancient human variant had only been discovered for three years.

In 1859, after more than twenty years of gathering evidence and refining his theories, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution. The debate over whether species were immutable or not had been going on for a long time. His own grandfather had theorized that species changed over time. But On the Origin of Species was a masterpiece of lucid, logical thought coupled with exhaustive, documented evidence.

Darwin was not completely correct. He knew nothing of genetics, and could only guess at how traits were passed from generation to generation. Yet the core of his theory was sound, and his theory of natural selection, which took decades to be accepted, is the bedrock on which much has been built.

Good scientific work is often subsumed into newer, more complete work. We learn more about how the world works, and older theories are superceded by newer ones. Only a handful of physical theories not only fundamentally changed how we viewed the world but also remain strikingly relevant today. Newton’s work on mechanics. Maxwell’s four equations. Mendel’s work on inheritance. To those add Darwin’s work on natural selection.

Happy 200th birthday, Charles Robert Darwin.

Charles Darwin, aged 51

12 thoughts on “In 1859

  1. Awesome post.

    One note (that only strengthens your point)—I’m pretty sure in 1859, most scientists didn’t accept the atomic hypothesis. Two of Einstein’s 1905 papers were viewed as putting the final nail in that coffin (although by that time, only the most reactionary elder scientists were holdouts).

  2. Mike: Whoa, really? Man, I’d have thought Dalton and Brown and the early periodic table work would have hastened that along, but i guess it’s true that new theories are often only accepted as old scientists die.

  3. Nice post. I love it when there is someone to geek out on science with 🙂 It’s nice to have a fellow scientist to talk to amongst all these engineers 😉

  4. Mrs. Creekmore, are you saying that we engineers care nothing for science?! 😉

    Lord bless all those scientists who figure stuff out and make the way for us engineers to come and exploit that knowledgebase for profit…

  5. Yes Doc, this is another example as to why I am proud to know you and our other Uber Geek friends. I feel smarter just for knowing you.

  6. No Mr. Morris, I’m not saying that you engineers don’t care for science, just that you don’t understand it like us scientists do 😉

    I have had many conversations with my husband on this matter, and he usually looks at me and says “Well, that’s just crazy” or silly or whatever word describes the conversation at the time.

    Besides, I’m surrounded by engineers who are always talking over my head about things I will never understand. It’s just nice to feel smart every once in a while, but I love you all anyway 🙂

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