Today In Science History – December 12 – James Challis

James Challis (1803-1882)

December 12 is the birthday of James Challis. Challis was an English astronomer who is best known for not discovering the planet Neptune.

English mathematician John Couch Adams computed an orbit for an unknown planet that should exist to cause the peculiar orbit of the planet Uranus. Adams passed his calculations to the Astronomer Royal, George Airy in 1844. Airy passed the task on to his successor at the Greenwich Observatory, James Challis. Challis had his own ideas about his priorities and undertook the task with little enthusiasm.

Fast forward two years and the German group of Galle and Le Verrier announced their discovery of Neptune. English scientific pride took the discovery as a blow and they took a closer look at Challis’ work. Upon review, they discovered Adams’ prediction was within 2° of the actual position of Neptune and Challis had observed it twice without recognizing the planet.

Challis was remorseful over the missed opportunity of a planet discovery. He did make several contributions to astronomy and physics. He published 225 scientific papers on topics including mathematics, physics, and astronomy. He was succeeded by John Couch Adams when he eventually resigned as Astronomer Royal.

Notable Science History Events for December 12

2008 – Daniel Carleton Gajdusek died.

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (1923 – 2008)

Gajdusek was an American physician and virologist who shares the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Baruch Blumberg for their discoveries into the origins and dissemination of infectious diseases. He investigated a neurological disease called kuru that was prevalent in New Guinea tribesmen. It was later determined this disease was the first human prion disease.

1961 – First amateur satellite launched.


OSCAR-1, First amateur satellite. National Air and Space Museum

The first satellite to reach orbit designed by private citizens was launched piggyback with another satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. OSCAR-1 which stands for Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio was a 10-pound radio broadcasting station designed and built by amateur radio operators from San Fransisco. When it reached orbit, it broadcast ‘Hi’ in Morse code every 6 seconds. It re-entered the atmosphere three weeks later after completing 312 orbits.

1866 – Alfred Werner was born.

Alfred Werner

Alfred Werner (1866 – 1919)

Alfred Werner was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work describing the linkage of complex ions around a central transition metal atom. This explained several unknown geometries of complex ions. He later used this to explain the differences between complexes with optical isomers and why they appear different from each other.

Alfred Werner was the first inorganic chemist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The next inorganic chemist was Ernst Fischer and Geoffrey Wilkinson in 1973.

1803 – James Challis was born.

1777 – Albrecht Von Haller died.

Albrecht von Haller

Albrecht von Haller (1668 – 1748)

Haller was a Swiss physician and anatomist who is considered to be the father of experimental physiology. He was the first to discover the autonomous nature of the heart and the mechanism of respiration. He also recognized bile helps dissolve fatty acids. His medical encyclopedia, “Elementa Physiologiae Corporis Humani” (Physiological Elements of the Human Body), documented many anatomical studies concerning nerve, muscle, brain and cardiovascular functions.

1775 – William Henry was born.

William Henry (1775 - 1836)

William Henry (1775 – 1836)

Henry was an English chemist who formulated what would become known as Henry’s law. Henry’s law states that at a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas dissolved in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid. This law also applies to several dilute solutions in addition to gases.

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