A Couple of Announcements

February 8, 2010

Today, February 8, marks the anniversary of the first public presentation of two important papers in the history of science.

In 1865, the Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, first presented his paper on “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” to the Natural Research Society of Brünn, in what was then Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire..  (The town is now known as Brno, in the Czech Republic.)  He described his hybridizing experiments, which he conducted while growing some 28,000 pea plants.  (One hopes that his fellow monks liked peas.)  As Wired points out in a commemorative article, it took some time for Mendel’s work to be appreciated:

The methodical monk sent reprints of the article to 40 leading biologists around Europe, including Charles Darwin. Darwin’s copy was found later, with its double pages still uncut: It had not been read.

This is despite the fact that both Darwin and natural-selection co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace had acknowledged they could not detail the way in which traits of successful surviving organisms in one generation are passed on to their progeny.

Mendel’s careful record-keeping allowed him to posit the existence of dminant and recessive characteristics, and his two “laws” of heredity:

  • Segregation.  An organism inherits two copies of a gene from its parents, but passes along only one to its offspring.
  • Independent Assortment.  The genes for different characteristics are “shuffled” independently of one another.

This really was a brilliant bit of essentially statistical inference from the data.  It took until the early 20th century for Mendel’s work to be fully appreciated.

The other paper of note dates back a bit further, to 1672, and was presented to the Royal Society in London by a relatively new member, Isaac Newton.  He presented results of his research into light and optics, which he had been carrying on for several years, inventing the reflecting telescope along the way.  His essay, New Theory about Light and Colours, was published that same year.

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