GREGOR MENDEL (1822- 84)

1865 – Austria

  • ‘Law of Segregation: In sexually reproducing organisms, two units of heredity control each trait. Only one of such units can be represented in a single sexually reproductive cell’

  • ‘Law of Independent Assortment: Each of a pair of contrasted traits may be combined with either of another pair’

These laws laid the foundation for the science of genetics.

The biologist Lamarck (1744-1829) had proposed a theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics and had suggested that inherited characteristics are influenced by environment. Mendel planted an atypical variety of an oriental plant next to a typical variety – the offspring retained the essential traits of their parents, which meant that the characteristics that were inherited were not influenced by the environment. This simple test led Mendel to embark on the path that would lead to the discovery of the laws of heredity.

Mendel’s aim was to discover ” a generally applicable law of the formation and development of hybrids “. He addressed this by studying the effect of cross-breeding on seven pairs of contrasting characteristics of Pisum sativum, a strain of pea.
His work on peas indicated that features of the plant; seed shape, seed colour, pod shape, pod colour, flower colour, flower position and stem length; were passed on from one generation to the next by some physical element. He realised that each characteristic of a plant was inherited independently, and that the ratios of plants exhibiting each trait could be statistically predicted.

photograph of GREGOR MENDEL ©


A common assumption in Mendel’s time was that when two alternative features were combined, an average of these features would occur. For example, a tall plant and a short one would result in medium height offspring. For seven years Mendel kept an exact record of the inherited characteristics of 28,000 pea plants, taking great pains to avoid accidental cross-fertilization; then he applied mathematics to the results. These quantitative data allowed him to see statistical patterns and ratios that had eluded his predecessors.

From his analysis he found that certain characteristics of plants are due to factors passed intact from generation to generation.
Mendel observed that individual plants of the first generation of hybrids (crossbred plants) usually showed the traits of only one parent. The crossing of yellow seeded plants with green seeded ones gave rise to yellow seeds; the crossing of tall stemmed ones with short-stemmed varieties gave rise to tall-stemmed plants.

The factors determining a trait are passed on to the offspring during reproduction.

Mendel worked out that the factors for each trait are grouped together in pairs and that the offspring receives one part of a pair from each parent.

Contrary to the popular belief of the time, these factors do not merge. Any individual pea always exhibits one trait or the other, never a mixture of the two possible expressions of the trait; only one trait from each pair of factors donated by the parents would be expressed in the offspring, although there are four possible combinations of factors.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of segregation.
An offspring inherits from its parents either one trait or the other, but not both.

He decided that some factors were ‘dominant’ and some were ‘recessive’ and was able to conclude that certain expressed traits, such as yellow seeds or tall stems, were the dominant ones and that other traits, such as shortness of stem and green seeds, were recessive. It appeared that the dominant factors consumed or destroyed the recessive factors – but this could not be the case, as the second generation of hybrids exhibited both the dominant and recessive traits of their ‘grandparents’. Across a series of generations of descendants, plants did not average out to a medium, but instead inherited the original features (for example, either tallness or shortness) in consistent proportions, a ratio of 3:1, according to the dominant factor.
The 3:1 ratio would apply because the dominant factor would feature whenever it was present.

He also noted that the different pairs of factors making up the characteristics of the pea plant ( such as the pair causing flower colour, the pair causing seed shape and so on ), when crossed, occurred in all possible mathematical combinations. This convinced him that the elements regulating the different features acted independently of each other, so the inheritance of one particular colour of flower was not influenced, for example, by the inheritance of pea shape.
This is now described as Mendel’s law of independent assortment.

He first articulated his results in 1865 and in 1866, which was shortly after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ appeared, published them in an article ‘Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden’ (Experiments with plant hybrids).

No one before him had attempted to use mathematics and statistics as a means of understanding and predicting biological processes and during his lifetime and for some time after, his results were largely ignored.

Around the time of Mendel’s death, scientists using ever improving optics to study the minute architecture of cells coined the term ‘chromosome’ to describe the long, stringy bodies in the cell nucleus.

The seven traits studied in peas
Type of seed surface smooth wrinkled
Colour of seed albumen yellow green
Colour of seed coat grey white
Form of ripe pod inflated constricted
Colour of unripe pod green yellow
Position of flowers on stem axial terminal
Length of stem tall short

‘There is doubt as to the probity of this Jesuit scholar, some claiming that his data was falsified whilst others argue that it is accurate’
Pilgrim, I. (1984) The Too-Good-to-be-True Paradox and Gregor Mendel. Journal of Heredity,#75, pp 501-2. Cited in Brake,M.L. & Hook, N. Different Engines – How science drives fiction and fiction drives science

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1925 – Austria

‘No two electrons in an atom can have the same quantum number’

A quantum number describes certain properties of a particle such as its charge and spin.

An orbital or energy level cannot hold more than two electrons, one spinning clockwise, the other anti-clockwise.

Electrons are grouped in shells, which contain orbitals. The shells are numbered ( n = 1,2,3 etc. ) outwards from the nucleus. These numbers are the ‘principle quantum numbers’.
An increase in n indicates an increase in energy associated with the shell, and an increase in the distance of the shell from the nucleus. The number of electrons allowed in a shell is 2n2. Each shell contains sub-shells or energy sub-levels. A shell can only have n sub-shells. A shell is given a number and a letter ( s,p,d,f,g,etc. ). For example, the electron shell structure of lithium is 1s22s1 (two electrons in ‘s’ sub-shell of the first shell, and one electron in ‘s’ sub-shell of the second shell; the superscript indicates the number of electrons in the shell).

The Pauli principle provided a theoretical basis for the modern periodic table.

1930 – Austria

‘The radioactive beta decay of an atomic nucleus in which a neutron turns into a proton and emits an electron does not seem to follow the law of conservation of energy. To account for the missing energy, Pauli postulated that a particle of zero charge and zero mass is released in such reactions’

A few years later ENRICO FERMI named the new particle a neutrino.
There are three known types of neutrino – muon, tau and electron.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to

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1926 – Austria

‘The complex mathematical equation describing the changing wave pattern of a particle such as an electron in an atom. The solution of the equation gives the probability of finding the particle at a particular place’

the Schrodinger equation

This equation provides a mathematical description of the wave-like properties of particles.

Schrödinger developed what became known as ‘wave mechanics, although like others, including EINSTEIN, he later became uncomfortable with the direction quantum theory took. His own proposal was built upon that of LOUIS DE BROGLIE – that particles could, in quantum theory, behave like waves. Schrödinger felt that de Broglie’s equations were too simplistic and did not offer a detailed enough analysis of the behaviour of matter, particularly at the sub-atomic level. He removed the idea of the particle completely and argued that everything is a form of wave.

PLANCK’s work had shown that light came in different colours because the photons had different amounts of energy. If you divided that energy by the frequency at which that colour of light was known to oscillate, you always arrived at the same value, the so-called Planck’s constant.

Between 1925 and 1926 Schrödinger calculated a ‘wave equation’ that mathematically underpinned his argument. When the theory was applied against known values for the hydrogen atom, for example in calculating the level of energy in an electron, it overcame some of the elements of earlier quantum theory developed by NIELS BOHR and addressed the weaknesses of de Broglie’s thesis.
Schrödinger stated that the quantum energies of electrons did not correspond to fixed orbits, as Bohr had stated, but to the vibration frequency of the ‘electron-wave’ around the nucleus. Just as a piano string has a fixed tone, so an electron wave has a fixed quantum of energy.

Having done away with particles, it was required that a physical explanation for the properties and nature of matter be found. The Austrian came up with the concept of ‘wave packets’ which would give the impression of the particle as seen in classical physics, but would actually be a wave.

The probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory based on the ideas of HEISENBERG and BORN proposed that matter did not exist in any particular place at all, being everywhere at the same time until one attempted to measure it. At that point, the equations offered the best ‘probability’ of finding the matter in a given location. Wave mechanics used much simpler mathematics than Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics, and was easier to visualise.
Schrödinger showed that in mathematical terms, both theories were the same and the rival theories together formed the basis for quantum mechanics.

Photograph of Schrödinger ©


Schrödinger joined Einstein and others in condemning the probabilistic view of physics where nothing was explainable for certain and cause and effect did not exist.

Ironically, PAUL ADRIAN MAURICE DIRAC went on to prove that Schrödinger’s wave thesis and the probabilistic interpretation were, mathematically at least, the equivalent of each other. Schrödinger shared a Nobel Prize for Physics with Dirac in 1933.

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ERNST MACH (1838-1916)

1895 – Austria

‘The ratio of the velocity of an object in air to the velocity of sound in air is termed the Mach number’

picture of the BELL X 1 in flight

If the Mach number is 1, speed is called sonic. Below Mach 1 it’s subsonic; above Mach 1 it’s supersonic.

Captain Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier, on 14 October 1947. His flight was in the Bell X-1 rocket under an US government research program.

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JOSEF STEFAN (1835- 93) LUDWIG BOLTZMANN (1844-1906)

1879 – Austria


‘The total energy radiated from a blackbody is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature of the body’

portrait drawing of JOSEPH STEFAN ©


(A blackbody is a hypothetical body that absorbs all the radiation falling on it)

Stefan discovered the law experimentally, but Boltzmann discovered it theoretically soon after.

photo portrait of LUDWIG BOLTZMANN &copy:



‘Heat at the molecular level’

Shortly after JAMES CLERK MAXWELL’s analysis of molecular motion, Ludwig Boltzmann gave a statistical interpretation of CLAUSIUS’s notion of entropy.

Coloured graphic depicting distribution of heat energy according to boltzman's model

Boltzmann’s formula for entropy is

S = k logW

 S  is entropy, k  is now known as Boltzmann’s constant and  W  is a measure of the number of states available to the system whose entropy is being measured.

The notion that heat flows from hot to cold could be phrased in terms of molecular motions. Molecules in a container collide with one another and the faster ones slow down while the slower ones speed up. Thus the hotter part becomes cooler and the colder part becomes hotter – thermal equilibrium is reached.

The Boltzmann constant is a physical constant relating energy at the individual particle level with temperature. It is the gas constant R  divided by the Avogadro constant NA :

k = R/NA 

It has the same dimension (energy divided by temperature) as entropy.

(In rolling a dice, a seven may be obtained by throwing a six and a one, a five and a two or a four and a three, while three needs only a two and a one. Seven has greater ‘entropy’ – more states.)

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OTTO HAHN (Germany 1879-1968) LEIS MEITNER (Austria 1878-1968) FRITZ STRASSMANN (Germany 1902- 80)

1938 – Germany

‘Nuclear Fission. The breaking up of the nucleus of a heavy atom into two or more lighter atoms. Energy is released during the process’

A reinterpretation of the results of the mid 1930s neutron-bombarding experiments of ENRICO FERMI with uranium offered an alternative explanation to Fermi’s own idea that the uranium had transmuted into new heavier elements. The three German scientists offered the explanation that the uranium nucleus had in fact been broken down into a number of smaller nuclei

with the release of potentially huge amounts of energy under the rules of Einstein’s formula E = mc2.


photo of lise meitner ©


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1842 – Austria

‘Any source of sound or light moving away from an observer changes in frequency with reference to the observer’

photograph of a metal plaque celebrating Christan_Doppler ©


The pitch of the whistle of a train is higher when the train is approaching an observer standing on a platform and lower when it is moving away from the observer.

Doppler explained the effect by pointing out that when the source of sound is moving toward the observer, sound waves reach the ear at shorter intervals, hence the higher pitch. When the source is moving away the waves reach the ear at longer intervals, hence the lower pitch. The Doppler effect also occurs when the source of sound is stationary and the observer is moving.

Doppler predicted that a similar effect would apply to light waves.

diagram demonstrating the Doppler effect

Different colours are the optical equivalent of notes of different pitch; blue light vibrates at roughly twice the pitch of red light.

In 1929 EDWIN HUBBLE suggested that the Doppler effect applied to light coming from distant stars gives a measure of the distance and speed of distant galaxies.

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