My daughter Emma started a collection for my wife Patti last year--for Mother’s Day—of books with dates as the main part of their title. For example: Roger Crowley’s 1453, James Chace 1912, Andrew Brieford 1066, Charles Mann’s 1491, David McCullogh’s 1776, and that elusive 1968 that I can never find. It is a wonderful idea, and probably something that could be expanded as a real collection.
I mention this because I was thinking about Big Years, enormous years, the annus mirabilis. 1905 is the first date that springs to mind in this category, but it is almost entirely dedicated to one person—Einstein—and not that much miraculously else, though it can probably be argued that those four papers in the Annalen were enough for enormous contributions spread across four very big people. Einstein really did have that good a year.
I like the year (for the sciences, anyway) 1932.
It isn’t thought of in the same way, say, as 1543, which was a great year for things big and little. Nicolas Copernicus saw (finally, basically from his deathbed) his "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) published in Nuremberg, while the Brussels-born, brilliant and troubled Andreas Vesalius had Johannes Oporinus print his revolutionary treatment of the human body "De humani corporis fabrica" (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Copernicus said the things that any thinking person was thinking about the structure of the solar system and universe at large, while Vesalius conducted his brave overthrow of the deeply ancient Galenic system of anatomy.
isn’t 1666, either, though 1-sign-of-the-devil’s stupendous nature was related
in a way to that of 1543. 1666 saw a
great heavenly event—the naming of the comet known as Halley’s—and a horrendous
biological one, with the great plague of London,
which killed upwards of 100,000 people.
(It was a bad year overall for the city—the winter of 1665 was terrifically
cold and was followed by the plague. At
the tail end of the plague came the Great Fire of London [the diarist Samuel
Pepys referring to it as 'a most horrid malicious bloody flame']). It seems more like an annus horriblius more than
anything else. Except of course for Issac Newton, who had a very fine year this
1932 wasn’t 1453 or 1066 or 1968 or 1776 or 1918 or 1945. Perhaps it is close to 1859, which saw the publication of what may be the most revolutionary work of the 19th century
in Darwin' On
the Origin of Species. Bunsen and Kirchhoff
added spectacular content when they figured out (with the aid of earlier work
by Fraunhoeffer and others) the internal constitution of the stars with a
telescope equipped with A spectroscope—truly an unthinkable breakthrough to
even a well-rounded mid-19th century mind.
What happened in1932 was another sweeping array of discoveries in the large and small. Carl Anderson identified the positron while James Chadwick discovered the neutron and the Joliot-Curies’ made their monumental discoveries in radiation (called “one of the most important discoveries of the century... the consequences of the discovery of artificial radioactivity are immense" from Segrè, From X-rays to Quarks, 198-199). Iwanenko described the neutron as a constituent f the nucleus, while Heisenberg described the nucleus as composed of protons and neutrons. Knoll and Ruska built the electron microscope, allowing a vision of the interior parts of the interiors of the smallest things, offering images almost as spectacularly new as Hooke’s two centuries earlier. Looking up and out, in the same year, Lev Landau postulated the existence of neutron stars while Karl Jansky invented radio astronomy. (Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler also had a big year this year.)*
It is tempting to include 16 months or so of 1925/6/7 in this list, if for no other reason than the people making the great innovations were so very young--the term for these German physicists is Knabenphysik (boy physics, boy physicists), and what they did was invent the new quantum mechanics and change the face of physics. It all came about at the end of the era of the old quantum theory (which comprised the years 1900-1925), and pretty much all at the University of Goettingen. The 1925 players were Werner Heisenberg (age 23, with his PhD. under Sommerfeld), Paul Jordan (age 22 with his Ph.D. under Born), Wolfgang Pauli (25, with his doctorate under Sommerfeld) and P. (aul)A.M. Dirac (22, and who wrote the world’s first dissertation on quantum mechanics). The odd person out in this group though was perhaps the strongest: Erwin Schroedinger was 37 in 1925, definitely the “Old Man” of this set. On the other hand there were three men of mountainous importance in physics who also made vast contributions to the new physics, even though they were, um, more mature: Max Born (in his mid-forties), Niels Bohr (about the same age) and Arnold Sommerfeld (who was 60 when he founded the quantum mechanics of metals).
In any event, I like 1932. Next time we'll look at another Big Year: 1948.
*Some of the books released in this year was also a bumper crop: Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway; Light in August, William Faulkner; 1919, John Dos Passos; The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett; Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell; Young Lonigan, James Farrell; Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder; and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley