Do You Know Who Made These Scientific Discoveries?

By: Zoe Samuel
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

It's objectively true that science is incredibly interesting. If you're a creative person, if you're curious about the world, if you ask "why," then you have the makings of a scientist. This means that it's one of the great tragedies of our society that science is so horribly taught that it manages to switch off large portions of the population. One of the reasons that so many kids give up on it is that it's presented as a bunch of fragmented facts that don't really relate to our real lives or to each other. Anyone in showbiz, marketing, advertising or who has ever raised a child can tell you, this is no way to get someone's attention. You need a story.

Fortunately, there are thousands of beautiful stories behind science; tales of success and failure. They are stories of brilliant men and women who looked at the world around them and asked first, why it worked the way it does, and second, whether it could work differently if you tried changing this or that. They all failed many times more than they succeeded, even the best among them, and all eventually enjoyed a great breakthrough. Do you know who they are?

Who discovered penicillin?

This British scientist was actually doing another experiment when he left his lab unattended. His cleaning lady knocked over a petri dish and a mold that grew in it appeared to kill off nearby bacteria. Thus was discovered penicillin.

Who discovered the nature of gravity?

Newton is probably the greatest mathematician who ever lived. Other scientists might have discovered things in tandem, but his discoveries were unique. As Alexander Pope wrote about him, "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night / God said, 'Let Newton be', and all was light!"

Who discovered the relationship between energy and matter?

Einstein was a German-born Jewish physicist who had to flee the Nazis. As well as creating the Theory of Relativity, Einstein was also a passionate advocate against racism, speaking out loudly against it and going to teach at historically Black universities at a time that this was not considered proper for Princeton professors.

Who discovered the circumference of the Earth?

This was something that was figured out a very long time ago. Eratosthenes used the angles of shadows cast by towers in two cities, heights, distances and so on, to figure out the curvature of the Earth and thus its circumference.

Who discovered Pluto?

Pluto is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, and is not actually the biggest thing out there, though it was the first to be spotted thanks to Clyde Tombaugh. It was named by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old English girl who proposed the name since is it is the name of the Greek God of the underworld, who - like the planet - can make himself invisible. (It is not, as has been suggested, named for the Disney character.)

Who discovered our double circulatory system?

Humans have a double circulatory system; that is, you have both arteries and veins. Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart out to where the oxygen is needed, and veins bring de-oxygenated blood back. We wouldn't know this without the work of William Harvey!

Who discovered the moons of Jupiter?

Galileo was treated badly by the church for his blasphemous assertion that the Earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around. Of course, he turned out to be quite right.

As well as James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA?

Rosalind Franklin was cut out of the process of getting credit for discovering DNA, and died before she could share in the Nobel prize. However, without her work on X-ray crystallography, the structure might be a mystery to this day!

Who discovered the law of the conservation of mass?

The "father of modern chemistry," Lavoisier came to a horrible end when the French Revolution chopped off his head with a guillotine! He figured out that mass is always conserved, and also that sulfur is an element, not a compound, among many other discoveries. Who knows what else he might have done if he had not been beheaded?

Other than Newton and Galileo, who discovered the laws of motion?

Christiaan Huygens is a major figure in the Englightenment's embrace of science. Indeed, he's so key that NASA honored his memory by naming a spacecraft for him that landed on Titan, a moon of Saturn, in 2005. This is only fair since without his work, we wouldn't know how to make a spaceship get to Saturn in the first place!

Which Brit discovered the laws of electromagetism?

Faraday's work happened in parallel with a Dane, Hans Christian Ørsted. This means they both discovered the same thing!

Which scientist discovered the existence of superconductivity?

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was fascinated with what happens when you cool things to absolute zero. This helped him discover superconductivity as well as being the first person to liquefy helium.

Which French virologist discovered HIV, the virus that causes AIDS?

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and her partner, Luc Montaigne, made this important discovery. Without this, anti-retroviral medication to halt the spread of HIV in the body and its eventual progression into full-blown AIDS would never have been possible.

Which Nobel winner discovered the anti-malarial compound pyrimethamine?

Gertrude Elion was a Nobel Prize winner, and arguably should have won more than once. She pioneered work against malaraia and also helped develop AZT, the first drug to make meaningful progress against HIV/AIDS.

Which Fisher Prize-winning pediatrician helped discover a vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough)?

Denmark (nee Daughtry) wasn't just an amazing doctor; she was also a supercentenarian, born in 1898 and living until 2012. That means she lived to 114 years old, making her one of the 100 oldest people ever recorded. Her vaccine has saved millions of lives, so it is really very fair she got a long one herself.

What brainiac discovered the rapidly rotating neutron star known as the pulsar?

A lot of people mistook pulsars for alien life when they were first spotted, as how else could they possibly give off such a regular signal? Jocelyn Bell Burnell figured out that they were rapidly rotating neutron stars. Their swift spinning caused the streams of particles coming off them to spin out from the poles and appear to pulse.

Which Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist who died for science discovered polonium and radium?

Curie's work on radiation and chemistry won her two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. She died of cancer due to inadequate shielding from the radioative materials used in her pioneering work on the X-ray machine.

Who discovered that the sun is the center of the solar system and all the planets go around it?

Nicholas Copernicus figured this out when he was close to death in 1453. It was not unreasonable to imagine otherwise, as the stars do rotate in the sky - but Copernicus realized by observing them over a period of time that between them and the planets, their behavior can only be explained by a heliocentric (ie sun-oriented) model of the solar system.

Who discovered the lactic cycle, which explains how lactate becomes glucose inside the body, and vice versa?

Gerty Cori worked with her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori. The Cori cycle is named for them, and helps us understand digestion and thus deal with weight gain or loss and conditions concerning the body's handling of sugar.

Who discovered that all life evolves?

Darwin's theory of natural selection was posited after his long voyage on the ship Beagle. Creatures whose mutations help them to survive reproduce and thrive; those who do not, die off. Eventually this results in speciation. Darwin's theories have since been proven by 150 years of further research.

What biologist discovered the tricky DNA sequences called transposable elements, that travel around the DNA sequence?

These DNA sequences help to explain how evolution works. Much of McClintock's work centered on maize, which has DNA that is 90% made up of tranposable elements. She won the Nobel in 1983.

Who first provided proof of the previously elusive Navier-Stokes equations?

Olga Ladyzhenskaya cracked these equations, which were rather like Fermat's Last Theorem. Everyone knew they worked but nobody could prove why, until she came along and nailed it.

Who first discovered that the universe started with a very Big Bang?

Georges Lemaître first theorized in 1927 that all matter was probably just one dot once. Since then, better instruments have enabled scientists to evaluate what was just a theory and show that it is probably correct.

Which of the below did NOT discover telomerase?

Telomerase is the stuff that stops your genes fraying. Think of the plastic binding on the end of your shoelace; it's literally just like that. Whenever the gene divides, the "telomere" shortens a little; the less there is, the higher the chance of mutation.

Which German scientist discovered that the nucleus of an atom has a shell?

A German immigrant to the US, Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel for this in 1963. No university would employ her when she first began as a scientist, but they felt pretty silly when they realized how good she was.

Which inaugural Nobel prizewinner first discovered X-rays?

This German physicist figured this out in time to nab the first Nobel for physics in 1901. X-rays go through bone adn flesh but not lead or certain other substances, meaning they can be used to look inside people.

Louis Pasteur was a pioneer in discovering the role of microorganisms (i.e. germs) in causing disease. Who was the other?

Lister pioneered the idea of sterile surgery, introducing carbolic acid to clean surgical instruments. This built on the work of microbiologist Pasteur's discovery of germs. Their ideas have saved countless lives.

Which English scientist discovered the electron?

Sir Joseph John Thomson and team's discovery of the electron meant that for the first time, we knew that there was something smaller than an atom. Electrons, neutrons and protons are the components of atoms.

Who discovered that the Earth's inner core is actually solid metal?

This Danish scientist discovered this in 1936, using her seismological observations. Previously, scientists believed the whole core to be molten, but she showed that it has two portions; a molten outer core and a solid inner core.

Who discovered the metal rhenium?

Noddack was a scientist who worked with her husband. She managed to identify atomic element number 75, and christened it rhenium. She was a three-time Nobel nominee.

Who discovered radioactivity in the first place?

This French scientist discovered radioactivity, which is the emission of particles due to "spontaneous disintegration of atomic nuclei". He shared the Nobel with Marie Curie and Pierre Curie.

Who discovered that the continents are not fixed in place?

Ortelius hails from the Netherlands under Habsburg rule and created the first atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. He was the first person to propose that the continents were once all one big one, drifted to their current positions and are still drifting.

Who discovered the greenhouse gas known as methane?

Volta is enormously important in the history of electricity and electronics. He invented the first electrical battery and the volt - a unit of electric potential - is named in his honor.

Which fellow of the Royal Society unlocked the structure of benzene?

Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson were jointly inducted into The Royal Society, one of the world's premiere scientific bodies, as the first two women in its ranks. Benzene is a key element in gasoline, so thank Lonsdale next time your car starts!

Which scientist who renounced a patent so that the world could benefit from her work inventing electron microscopy?

Gai's environmental transmission electron microscope or ETEM is an amazing device; it's the first microscope so powerful that you can use it to see reactions at the atomic level. Gai could have probably made billions from all the elements she discovered and invented in building it, but she wanted it to advance science and instead made it all open source.

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