Happy Birthday, Isaac Newton!

Had he lived to see it, Sir Isaac would be 367 years old today – and probably pretty amazed at the scientific leaps and bounds we’ve seen since the 1687 publication of his Principia – widely regarded as one of the most influential books in the history of science.

Though he’s known to schoolchildren to world over as the recipient of a nasty bump on the head from a falling apple – the true origin of Newton’s conceptualization of gravity comes from a little higher in the sky. So, in honor of Sir Newton’s birthday, here’s a short clip from the BBC explaining how we came to know why we don’t just fall right off the Earth:

How do you remember Newton? Let us know in the comments.

And if you haven’t already, check out Google’s homepage today for their celebration (be sure to scroll over the image to get the full effect).

UPDATE: According to Scientific American, the apple story is not as apocryphal as some have claimed. (via BoingBoing)

Darwin2009: An “Aha!” moment worth celebrating

Archimedes
Archimedes: the original
“Aha!” moment.
 photo credit:
kimberlyfaye (away)

Behind many momentous scientific discoveries there seems to have been what we call an “aha moment.” Consider Sir Isaac Newton and the apple which is said to have hit him, causing Newton to hit on the notion of gravity. Consider Archimedes in his bathtub and his “Eureka” moment, which is just Greek for the German “Aha!”

Insights like these are different from those derived from problem solving. It seems that in this case, there is a sudden realization that we can explain something in a way we have never thought of before. In some cases the insight might have come almost immediately, in other cases it took years, if not decades for that lightning bolt to strike.

Consider Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin
Creative Commons License photo credit:
CATR *Recomiendo ver
fotos con su tamaño original

Darwin was invited to be part of the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. It appears it was a last minute invitation (Here I could segue into what constitutes a ‘what if” moment, but I won’t.)  During his five-year long trip, Darwin spent most of his time on land, a good thing for a person prone to sickness, and a good thing for us too, as he was able to collect a lot of samples and make copious notes. This trip, which took him around the world, lasted from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836. Even though he was able to collect lots of data, it also appears that he was not until he was back home and reviewing his materials that the “aha!” moment came. When studying rare Galapagos mockingbirds, Darwin started considering the notion that that species changed over time. In other words, Darwin started to think of what we call “evolution.” (The mocking birds are currently part of an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.)

It was not until 1859 after further research and after much prodding from third parties, that Darwin finally published his famous tome “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”  It has been a bestseller ever since.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book. These two dates are celebrated across the world, although in the United States, Darwin will have to share birthday cake with a fellow called Lincoln, who happened to have the same birth day. In Houston, activities surrounding Darwin, his work and influence will be coordinated through the Houston Darwin 2009 organization.

A host of Houston-based institutions participate, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We have several events lined up, including a Darwin Day Festival on February 7 and a lecture series, starting in March 2009. Come help us celebrate one of history’s most famous Aha moments.