Today In Science History – December 13 – Kristian Olaf Birkeland

Kristian Olaf Birkeland
Kristian Olaf Birkeland (1867 – 1917)

December 13 is the birthday of Norway’s Kristian Birkeland. Birkeland was a physicist who made several discoveries centered around electricity. He was the first to demonstrate how charged particles could cause air to emit light around a magnetized sphere to explain the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. The green and dark red colors are associated with oxygen emissions and the blue and red come from nitrogen.

He also developed the first magnetic cannon using banks of magnetic fields to propel metal projectiles. His canon did not give him the results he expected but was still successful in launching a bullet. His first public demonstration designed to bring investors was a failure when the part of the apparatus exploded in a violent electrical display.

Soon after this demonstration, he met an engineer named Sam Eyde who gave him the idea to use electricity to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The pair developed the Birkeland-Eyde process and designed an industrial system to produce large amounts of nitric acid. This process is inefficient in terms of electrical power used, but Norway’s geothermal power supply is virtually inexhaustible. This factory made both men wealthy and funded Birkeland’s future research endeavors.

Notable Science History Events for December 13

1955 – António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz died.

António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz
António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz (1874 – 1955)
Nobel Foundation

Egas Moniz was a Portuguese neurologist who was awarded half the 1949 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of the therapeutic effects of leucotomy for certain psychoses. A leucotomy is also known as a lobotomy which is a surgical procedure where the connections between the prefrontal cortex and anterior of the frontal lobes of the brain are severed. Moniz developed the technique as an attempt to treat severe mental illnesses.

1935 – Victor Grignard died.

Victor Grignard (1871 - 1935)
Victor Grignard (1871 – 1935)

Grignard was a French chemist who was awarded half the 1912 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the Grignard reagent that advanced organic chemistry of the time. Grignard reagents are alkyl- or aryl-magnesium halides used in organometallic chemical reactions (Grignard reactions). Grignard reactions are useful for preparing organic compounds from smaller precursor molecules.

1930 – Fritz Pregl died.

Fritz Pregl (1869 - 1930)
Fritz Pregl (1869 – 1930). Nobel Foundation

Pregl was an Austrian physician and chemist who was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his method of micro-analysis of organic substances. While he was researching bile acids, he had difficulty using the analytic techniques of the time to determine the elemental makeup of his samples. He improved the techniques such that there were fewer steps and less sample was needed.

He also developed a sensitive microbalance and new ways to identify chemical functional groups.

1923 – Philip Warren Anderson was born.

Anderson is an American physicist who shares the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics with John H. Van Vleck and Nevill F. Mott for their research into the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems. He also outlined a theoretical model explaining what happens when an impurity is present in a metal.

1867 – Kristian Olaf Birkeland was born.