A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Key Figures

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Key Figure Description
Albert Einstein Einstein (1879–1955) was a physicist who fundamentally changed how physicists and other scientists see the world. Among other achievements, he described the nature of light, outlined the special theory of relativity, and altered human understanding of space and time. Read More
Charles Darwin Darwin (1809–82) was a naturalist who, at the same time as Alfred Russel Wallace, proposed the idea of natural selection, the mechanism for evolution. He wrote two major works: On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Read More
Isaac Newton Newton (1643–1727) was a brilliant mathematician and physicist best known for his invention of calculus, his three laws of motion, and the law of gravity. Read More
Louis Agassiz Agassiz (1807–73) was a naturalist who created the theory of glaciation and conceived of the existence of past ice ages.
Walter Alvarez Alvarez (1940–) is a geologist who discovered the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago was the result of an impact from a meteorite.
Ray Anderson Anderson (1947-) is a state geologist for Iowa. Along with Brian Witzke he was one of the state geologists at the time the Manson crater was being considered for the KT boundary impact site where scientists thought the meteorite impact occurred which caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Mary Anning Anning (1799–1847) was an early paleontologist who collected an enormous number of fossils from the cliffs of the English Channel.
Oswald Avery Avery (1877–1955) was the scientist who proved DNA is the active agent in heredity.
Carlo Avogadro Avogadro (1776–1856) was a chemist who provided the method for accurately measuring and weighing atoms.
Joseph Banks Banks (1743–1820) was an English botanist who collected over 30,000 different plant specimens.
Otis Barton Barton (1899–1992) was a deep-sea diver and inventor who, along with Charles William Beebe, began modern deep-sea exploration.
Charles William Beebe Beebe (1877–1962) was a naturalist and marine biologist who, along with Otis Barton, initiated modern deep-sea exploration.
Victoria Bennett Bennett is an isotope geochemist who works at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Niels Bohr Bohr (1885–1962) was a physicist who determined electrons occupy specific orbits and change orbits by a process known as the "quantum leap."
Pierre Bouguer Bouguer (1698–1758) was a hydrologist who, along with Charles Marie de La Condamine, led an expedition that ultimately failed to determine the circumference of Earth.
Thomas Brock Brock (1926–) is a biologist who, along with his wife, Louise Brock, discovered the first extremophiles (organisms that can survive temperatures over 100˚C) on the edges of Yellowstone National Park, changing the concept of where and how life can live.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon Buffon (1707–88) made the first scientific attempt to determine the age of Earth. He also initiated the hunt for fossils in both the New and Old Worlds.
Reverend William Buckland Buckland (1784–1856) was a geologist who inadvertently laid claim to being the first researcher to describe a dinosaur fossil. However, he failed to realize the importance of the find.
Henry Cavendish Cavendish (1731–1810) was a chemist and physicist who anticipated a number of scientific discoveries, such as the law of the conservation of energy and the principles of electrical conductivity. He also accurately measured the mass of Earth.
Bob Christiansen Christiansen is the geologist who discovered Yellowstone National Park is the site of a supervolcano.
James Christy Christy (1938-) is the astronomer who noticed in 1978 Pluto has a moon. This fact was later used as evidence for Pluto's reclassification as a dwarf planet.
Charles Marie de La Condamine Condamine (1701–74) was a soldier-mathematician who, along with Pierre Bouguer, led an expedition that ultimately failed to determine the circumference of Earth.
Edward Drinker Cope In part due to his rivalry with Othniel Charles Marsh, Cope (1840–97) helped to significantly advance the field of paleontology through the discovery of new specimens and their identifications.
Gustave-Gaspard de Coriolis Coriolis (1792–1843) described the link between Hadley cells, Earth's spin, and the deflection of air, a relationship now called the Coriolis effect.
Frances Crick Along with Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and James Watson, Crick (1916–2004) helped to discover the structure of DNA. Together with Watson, he uncovered the ultimate structure of DNA.
James Croll Croll (1821–90) was the scientist who first suggested the changes in Earth's orbit were caused by past glaciation periods. His theory was later expanded on by Milutin Milankovitch.
Marie Curie Curie (1867–1934) was a physicist and chemist who alongside her husband, Pierre, discovered radioactive elements. She is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in both chemistry and physics.
Georges Cuvier Cuvier (1769–1832) was a paleontologist who put forth the first formal theory for evolution.
John Dalton Dalton (1766–1844) was the first scientist to consider the relative size and characteristics of atoms.
Raymond Dart Dart (1893–1988) was the anatomist who first described Australopithecus africanus based on the Taung Child fossil.
Humphrey Davy Davy (1778–1829) was the professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution and discovered dozens of elements.
Robert Dicke Dicke (1916–97) was the researcher who interpreted the cosmic microwave background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson as evidence for the big bang. He did not receive any recognition for his contributions.
Paul Doss Doss is a Yellowstone National Park geologist who helped form the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory.
Marie Eugène François Thomas Dubois Dubois (1858–1940) was a paleoanthropologist who discovered Homo erectus or "Java man."
Frank Drake Drake (1930–) is a Cornell professor who created an equation to calculate the chances of advanced life.
Len Ellis Ellis is the curator for one of the most comprehensive collections in the world of mosses for the Natural History Museum in London.
Reverend Robert Evans Evans (1937–) is an amateur scientist who searches for and finds supernovae in his spare time.
Tim Flannery Flannery (1956–) is a naturalist who, along with Peter Schouten, wrote A Gap in Nature, a book that describes the extinctions that occurred in the past 300 years.
Richard Fortey Fortey (1946–) is a paleontologist who studies fossils of trilobites at the Natural History Museum in London.
Rosalind Franklin Along with Maurice Wilkins, Frances Crick, and James Watson, Franklin (1920–58) helped to discover the structure of DNA. She provided the vital images via X-ray crystallography that allowed for the discovery of the structure of DNA.
J. Willard Gibbs Gibbs (1839–1903) was the author of On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances that described how thermodynamics applies to processes other than heat and energy.
Murray Gell-Mann Gell-Mann (1929–) is the physicist who theorized the existence of fundamental particles called quarks. His theory contributed to the development of the standard model, the widely accepted theory of elementary particles.
Stephen Jay Gould Gould (1941–2002) was a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who wrote many science books for the general public on evolution and adaptation of species over time.
Beno Gutenberg Along with Charles Richter, Gutenberg (1889–1960) devised the Richter scale which is used to make comparisons between different magnitudes of earthquakes.
Alan Guth Guth (1947–) is the particle physicist who developed inflation theory which describes the creation of the universe through a sudden, dramatic expansion.
George Hadley Hadley (1685–1768) was an amateur meteorologist who elaborated on the idea the atmosphere seeks equilibrium, an idea that was first proposed by Edmond Halley.
Ernst Haeckel Haeckel (1834–1919) was a German biologist and naturalist who suggested bacteria deserved to be placed in a separate kingdom for the purpose of classification.
J. B. S. Haldane Haldane (1892–1964) was an evolutionary biologist and geneticist who, along with his son John Scott Haldane, helped to define the limits of human tolerance of extreme conditions.
Edmond Halley Halley (1656–1742) was an astronomer who made a bet to determine why planets orbited in an ellipse that ultimately led to the publication of Isaac Newton's monumental work, Principia.
Rosalind Harding Harding is a population geneticist at the Institute of Biological Anthropology in Oxford who focuses on understanding the genetic variation in ancient and modern populations.
Werner Heisenberg Heisenberg (1901–76) was a physicist known for Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which states the position and the velocity of an electron cannot both be measured exactly at the same time, even in theory. His insights helped spawn a new discipline known as quantum mechanics.
Arthur Holmes Holmes (1890–1965) was the geologist who first detailed the theory of continental drift.
Robert Hooke British scientist Hooke (1635–1703) was the first person to describe a cell.
Luke Howard Howard (1772–1864) was the father of modern meteorology.
Fred Hoyle Hoyle (1915–2001) was a cosmologist who discovered how the heavier elements were created during the big bang; however, a collaborator, rather than Hoyle himself, received a Nobel Prize for the work.
Edwin Hubble Hubble (1889–1953) was the astronomer who determined all of the galaxies are moving away from us and the universe is rapidly expanding.
Charles Hutton Hutton (1737–1823) was the mathematician who helped to discover the mass of Earth along with Nevil Maskelyne. He also invented contour lines on topographical maps.
James Hutton Hutton (1726–97) is known as the father of geology. He was one of the first people to propose Earth had an immense age.
Donald Johanson Johanson (1943–) is the head of the team that discovered one of the most famous sets of hominid fossils in the world—Lucy, a 3.18 million-year-old australopithecine.
Lord Kelvin Kelvin (1824–1907) was a well-rounded and prolific engineer and physicist who made advances in several fields, but ultimately incorrectly calculated the age of Earth.
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier Lavoisier (1743–94) was the scientist who brought organization and systematization to the field of chemistry.
Louis Leakey Louis Leakey (1903–72) was a paleontologist who, along with his wife, Mary Leakey, made a series of remarkable discoveries of fossil hominids in Africa.
Mary Leakey Mary Leakey (1913–96) was a paleontologist who, along with her husband, Louis Leakey, made a series of remarkable discoveries of fossil hominids.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt Leavitt (1868–1921) was the "computer" in astronomy who discovered a star called a Cepheid variable which allowed Edwin Hubble to measure the extent of the universe.
Leon Lederman Lederman (1922–) is an American physicist who was a co-recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on neutrinos.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) was the Dutch scientist who discovered protozoa and inspired other scientists to investigate the microscopic world.
Georges Lemaître Lemaître (1894–1966) was the Belgian priest-scholar who brought together Einstein's theory of relativity and Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe into a comprehensive "fireworks" theory.
Frederick C. Leonard Leonard (1896–1960) was the astronomer who theorized the existence of the Kuiper Belt.
Willard Libby Libby (1906–1980) was the physical chemist who invented radiocarbon dating.
Carolus Linnaeus Linnaeus (1707–78) was the zoologist who created the first systematic classification system for life based on anatomical characteristics. The system was described in Systema Naturae (1735) and is known as the Linnaean system.
Percival Lowell Lowell (1855–1916) was the astronomer who believed a planet, called planet X, existed out beyond Neptune, prompting the search for Pluto.
Charles Lyell Lyell (1797–1875) was the geologist associated with uniformitarianism, the school of thought in geology that believes Earth developed slowly and uniformly over billions of years. He is the author of the influential work The Principles of Geology.
Gideon Algernon Mantell Mantell (1790–1852) was the country doctor with an interest in fossils who discovered and recognized the first dinosaur fossil; however, the discovery was inadvertently claimed by Reverend Buckland.
Othniel Charles Marsh In part due to his rivalry with Edward Drinker Cope, Marsh (1831–99) helped to significantly advance the field of paleontology through the discovery and identification of new fossil specimens.
Nevil Maskelyne Maskelyne (1732–1811) was the scientist who helped to discover the mass of Earth along with Charles Mason and Charles Hutton.
Charles Mason Mason (1728–86) was the astronomer and surveyor who helped discover the mass of Earth along with Nevil Maskelyne.
Drummond Matthews Together with Fred Vine, Matthews (1931–97) demonstrated the act of seafloor spreading.
Ernst Mayr Mayr (1904–2005) was the zoologist and evolutionary biologist who argued life should be divided into just two categories: simple bacterial organisms and complex cells and organisms (like plants and animals) and rejected Woese's system of classification, which classified single-celled organisms as predominant.
Gregor Mendel Mendel (1822–84) was the botanist and geneticist who explained how species originate through recessive and dominant genes and patterns of inheritance.
Dmitri Ivanovic Mendeleev Mendeleev (1834-1907) was the Russian chemist and professor at the University of St. Petersburg who invented the periodic table of elements.
John Michell Michell (1724–93) was the country parson who invented a machine designed to measure the mass of Earth.
Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley (1889–1944) was the mechanical engineer and chemist whose research led to the addition of lead in gasoline as well as the creation of chlorofluorocarbons.
Johannes Friedrich Miescher Miescher (1844–95) was the biologist who first isolated nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA.
Milutin Milankovitch Milankovitch (1879–1958) expanded on the theory that changes in Earth's elliptical orbit resulted in past ice ages.
Stanley Miller Miller (1930–2007) was a chemist whose experiments showed organic compounds can be synthesized from simple inorganic molecules, and thus showed how life may have developed in the primordial oceans.
Thomas Hunt Morgan Morgan (1866–1945) was the evolutionary biologist and geneticist who proved the key to inheritance lay within chromosomes.
Simon Conway Morris Morris (1951–) is the paleontologist who described the Burgess Shale fossils.
Richard Owen Owen (1804–92) was a British naturalist known for his work on dinosaurs and the development of the modern concept of a museum.
Clair Patterson Patterson (1922–95) was a geochemist who determined the age of Earth using lead isotopes, discovered unhealthy levels of lead in the atmosphere, and whose research led to the Clean Air Act of 1970.
Arno Penzias Penzias (1933–) is the radio astronomer who, along with Robert Wilson, discovered cosmic microwave background radiation from the big bang in the mid-20th century. He received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics despite not fully understanding the implications of the findings.
Auguste Piccard Along with his son Jacques Piccard, Auguste Piccard (1884–1962) designed a bathyscaphe, a small steel gondola built to withstand great external pressure. In 1960 the bathyscaphe descended to the deepest depths any human has gone in the ocean, 35,797 ft.
Jacques Piccard Along with his father, Auguste Piccard, Jacques Piccard (1922–2008) designed a bathyscaphe and descended to the deepest depths any human has gone in the ocean.
Max Planck Planck (1858–1947) was the theoretical physicist who described quantum theory, marking the first step into the age of quantum physics.
John Playfair Playfair (1748–1819) was the colleague of James Hutton who rewrote Hutton's Theory of the Earth into a more comprehensible work titled Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth.
Charles Richter Along with Beno Gutenberg, Richter (1900–85) devised the Richter scale which is used to make measurements of the size and magnitude of earthquakes.
Lionel Walter Rothschild Rothschild (1868–1937) was the wealthy naturalist who ultimately collected over two million specimens and contributed 5,000 species to scientific collections. His prolific collection ability resulted in the extinction of multiple species.
Ernest Rutherford Rutherford (1871–1937) was the first physicist to realize radioactive elements could act as a clock. He also performed the famous gold foil experiment that determined an atom was mostly empty space with a dense nucleus of neutrons and protons.
Carl Sagan Sagan (1934–96) was an astronomer and professor who helped make research and theories about the cosmos accessible through his lectures, writing, and a popular television series that he hosted.
Karl Scheele Scheele (1742–86) independently discovered eight elements, including oxygen and chlorine, but failed to receive any credit for these discoveries.
Peter Schouten Schouten is an illustrator who, along with Tim Flannery, wrote A Gap in Nature, a book that described extinctions from the past 300 years.
Erwin Schrödinger Schrödinger (1887–1961) was the scientist who created the field of wave mechanics and is known for his famous example of quantum mechanics involving a hypothetical cat in a box.
Theodor Schwann Schwann (1810–82) was the physiologist who realized all life is cellular and helped to create cell theory which became the basis for modern biology.
Eugene Shoemaker Shoemaker (1928–97) was the geologist who realized the Manson crater was the result of an asteroid impact, not of an underground explosion.
Vesto Slipher Slipher (1875–1969) was the astronomer who first discovered the universe is constantly expanding.
William Smith Smith (1769–1839) was a geologist in England who realized the importance of superposition for understanding the different layers of strata, or layers of rock in a geological formation. He helped spur the field of stratigraphy, a branch of geology that investigates the geometric relationships between different rock layers.
Reginald Sprigg Sprigg (1919–94) was the geologist who discovered fossils that predated the Cambrian explosion in the Ediacaran Hills of the Flinders Ranges in Australia.
Benjamin Thompson Thompson (1753–1814), American born and later titled Count von Rumford in Germany, was the scientist who advanced the field of chemistry, among other things, through the creation of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the only institution at the time to promote the field.
Clyde Tombaugh Tombaugh (1906–97) was the astronomer who discovered Pluto while working at the Lowell Observatory.
Archbishop James Ussher Ussher (1581–1656) made one of the earliest, well-known attempts to calculate the age of Earth based on a careful study of the Bible. He determined the day Earth began was October 23, 4004 BCE.
Fred Vine Together with Drummond Matthews, Vine (1939–) demonstrated the act of seafloor spreading.
Mike Voorhies Voorhies is the paleontologist who discovered the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska. The acres of deep ash resulted from a huge eruption of the volcanic caldera at Yellowstone National Park, and it is the site of many fossils.
Charles Doolittle Walcott Walcott (1850–1927) was the paleontologist who discovered an outcrop of rock known as the Burgess Shale, site of many well-preserved fossils.
Alfred Russel Wallace Wallace (1823–1913) was the naturalist who, independently of Charles Darwin, proposed the idea of natural selection in the evolution of species.
James Watson Along with Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Francis Crick, Watson (1928–) helped to discover the structure of DNA.
Alfred Wegener Wegener (1880–1930) was the meteorologist who developed the idea continents drift and Earth's landmasses were initially contained within a massive landmass.
R. H. Whittaker Whittaker (1920–80) was the ecologist who proposed organisms should be divided into five categories: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera.
Maurice Wilkins Along with Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick, and James Watson, Wilkins (1916–2004) helped to discover the structure of DNA. He did a large portion of the initial research into the structure of DNA.
C.T.R. Wilson C.T.R. Wilson (1868–1959) was the physicist who invented the cloud chamber, a particle detector which proved subatomic particles existed.
Robert Wilson Robert Wilson (1936–) is the radio astronomer who, along with Arno Penzias, discovered cosmic microwave background radiation from the big bang in the mid-20th century. He received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics despite not fully understanding the implications of his findings.
Caspar Wistar Wistar (1761–1818) identified the first dinosaur bone, but failed to understand its significance.
Brian Witzke Witzke is a state geologist for Iowa. Along with Ray Anderson, he was one of the state geologists at the time the Manson crater was being considered for the KT boundary impact site where scientists thought the meteorite impact occurred which caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Carl Woese Woese (1928–2012) proposed that, instead of Whittaker's system of classification, living things should be divided into 23 groups with more emphasis given to microbial life.
Sir Christopher Wren Wren (1632–1723) was an astronomer and architect. He was part of the bet that led to the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia.
Fritz Zwicky Zwicky (1898–1974) was the astrophysicist who coined the terms supernova, cosmic rays, and dark matter. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist in charge of developing the atomic bomb during World War II, adopted many of Zwicky's ideas but did not give him any credit.
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