On this day in science history: 28 November

From the days of ancient technology to modern science - find out what happened on this day in the history of science.

28th November 2017
The beginning of the Great Flood © Culture Club/Getty Images

The beginning of the Great Flood © Culture Club/Getty Images

2349BC – a comet passes Earth, “instigating the Great Flood”

According to William Whitson, a comet shoots past Earth showing ‘God’s displeasure with the wicked world’ and instigating rainfall for 40 days and 40 nights resulting in the Great Flood.

Whiston, a devoted Anglican, fused physics with Biblical teachings in his explanations of Earth’s greatest events. An example of this is his notion that the rotations of the Earth were induced by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. He reasoned that stories from several ancient civilisations all have features which suggest a comet firing past or colliding into the Earth followed by an all-encompassing flood. He accompanied these religious inferences with an intricate mathematical calculation.

However, his extreme ideology did not appeal to everyone; once the assistant of Sir Isaac Newton, Whiston was fired after their difference of opinion caused a rift between the two physicists. Many viewed his scientific ideas as incredulous, ridiculing his theories and literature. His major downfall was his public announcement that a comet set to pass on 16 October 1736 would destroy the world with a gigantic fire. The residents of London became hysterical, overcome by the fear of the end of the world forcing the Archbishop of Canterbury to openly condemn Whiston’s scaremongering prediction. Sure enough, the comet tore past Earth without a great fire ensuing and Whiston was never academically respected again.

1967 – Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish observe slight pulses of radiation from a pulsar

Student Jocelyn Bell holds drawing of radio waves to Dr Anthony Hewish © Brian Seed/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Student Jocelyn Bell holds drawing of radio waves to Dr Anthony Hewish © Brian Seed/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Bell and Hewish made the discovery while gazing through a telescope in Cambridge that was specially engineered to observe quasars, the brightest and furthermost objects in the Universe. In the absence of modern data-handling technology, Bell had to analyse 40 metres of paper every day, by hand. It was during this tedious process that she noticed an anomaly in the data which she realised, with further investigation, was being discharged every 1.3 seconds regularly from one particular point.

The peculiar observation was initially feared to have been emitted by cosmic life forms, however this theory was eliminated when three more regular pulses were witnessed. Eventually, Thomas Gold established that the signals were derived from pulsars; a pulsar is the pulsating radio source emanating from a fast spinning neutron star.

The uses of pulsars include x-ray pulsar-based navigation and timing (XNAV) where the position of spacecraft is determined by their relativity to the known location of pulsars. Jocelyn Bell subsequently lead a more family-orientated life and in 1974 Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for their ground-breaking discovery. Now, 15,000 pulsars have been spotted, with scientists predicting this number will escalate in the coming years.

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