January 28 is Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale’s birthday. Lonsdale was an Irish crystallographer who proved benzene was composed of six carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon.
Yardley began her career as a mathematics student. It didn’t take her long to feel the lure of experimental physics and she switched her major to physics. She didn’t receive much support for her choice, but she topped the class when she graduated in 1922.
One of her examiners was William Bragg. Bragg had won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering crystal structures could be determined by how x-rays are scattered as they pass through the crystal. Bragg offered Yardley a position in his research team working in the field he created. Soon she determined the structure of her first organic compound, succinic acid ((CH2)2(CO2H)2).
She married Thomas Lonsdale in 1927 and he supported her research position. He told her he had “not married to get a free housekeeper”. Her marriage did move her out of Bragg’s laboratory and into her own. It was here she crystallized benzene and showed the hexagonal structure predicted by Kekulé was true.
She focused her work on x-ray crystallography of organics and pharmaceutical molecules. She also created tables of different space groups to make the work of identifying functional groups in molecules easier. She also studied the thermal effects and magnetic anisotropy of crystals.
Lonsdale was also a Quaker and protested World War II by refusing to sign up for civil defense duty. This refusal earned her a £2 fine, which she also refused to pay. This earned her a month in Holloway Prison for Women. She became a prison reform activist after her experiences in prison.
She became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945. Along with Marjory Stephenson, they were the first female Fellows of the Society. She was also the first tenured professor at University College in London and the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography. and British Association for the Advancement of Science.
For a fun and fascinating read, check out her lecture Women in Science. The Royal Institution website has a scan of this lecture in PDF format here.
Notable Science History Events for January 28
2015 – Yves Chauvin died.
Chauvin was a French organic chemist who shares the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock for their development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis. Chauvin described how metathesis reactions function and the types of metal compounds that act as catalysts for the reactions. Metathesis is an organic reaction that redistributes the bonds of similar interacting chemicals so the products’ bonding affiliations are identical or similar to the reactants. It is used to create pharmaceuticals and petroleum polymers with less waste and byproducts.
1999 – Element 114 discovered.
Creation of Ununquadium (Element 114) was reported by scientists at Dubna (Joint Institute for Nuclear Research) in Russia. The IUPAC would change its name in May of 2012 to Flerovium (symbol Fl) in recognition to the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions and Georgiy N. Flerov, for whom the laboratory is named.
1988 – Klaus Fuchs died.
Fuchs was a German physicist who became known as the ‘Atom Bomb Spy’ when he was convicted of espionage for passing vital information about atomic weapons to the Soviet Union. He was part of the Manhattan project to built the atomic bomb and passed notes along to a Soviet contact and had a significant effect on the Soviet atomic weapons project after the war. He was convicted of espionage and served 9 years of a 14-year sentence. After his release, he moved to East Germany and served as Deputy Director of the Institute for Nuclear Research in Dresden.
1986 – Challenger Tragedy
The space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board. The explosion was determined to have been caused by a leaking o-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters. The leak allowed the burning gasses to vent directly into the external fuel tank which caused the explosion.
The Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for 32 months while NASA evaluated the technical and administrative problems that led to the disaster.
1928 – Michael Foster died.
Foster was an English physiologist who introduced modern methods of teaching biology that emphasize training in the laboratory. His methods would put Britain at the forefront of physiological studies and research and make physiology a scientific profession.
1922 – Robert W. Holley was born.
Holly was an American biochemist who shares the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Warren Nirenberg and Har Gobind Khorana for research into how DNA controls the synthesis of proteins. He determined the sequence and structure of alanine tRNA, which incorporates the amino acid alanine into proteins. This helped determine the synthesis of proteins from messenger RNA.
1938 – Tomas Lindahl was born.
Lindahl is a British scientist who earned a third of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to the understanding of DNA repair. When a cell detects damage to DNA, a series of processes begin to correct the problem. Lindahl’s research focused on understanding these processes.
1903 – Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale was born.
1864 – Benoît Émile Clapeyron died.
Clapeyron was a French engineer and physicist whose studies on steam engines and heat of vaporization of fluids led to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He was the first to graphically illustrate the closed curve processes of an engine cycle on a pressure vs. volume chart. He is also known for his contributions to civil engineering through his work on static mechanics.