View our new "On this day" sections for December.


1 December 

  • 1580 Birth of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, generally credited with making the first observation of the Orion nebula in 1610

2 December 

  • 1942 The world’s first artificial, self-sustaining fission reaction is produced by Enrico Fermi, as part of the Manhattan Project aimed at developing a nuclear weapon

3 December 

  • 1973 Pioneer 10 captures the first close-up photos of Jupiter to be taken from a space probe

  • 1999 Contact is lost with the Mars Polar Lander during its descent phase
  • 1886 Birth of Manne Siegbahn, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1924 for his work on x-ray spectroscopy

4 December 

5 December 

  • 1863 Birth of Paul Painlevé, who introduced a coordinate system, used in general relativity, which showed that the Schwarzchild Radius is a coordinate singularity rather than a real breaking-down of the theory

  • 1868 Birth of Arnold Sommerfeld, nominated a record 81 times for the Nobel Prize in Physics without ever winning
  • 1901 Birth of Werner Heisenberg, who formulated the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932
  • 1903 Birth of Cecil Frank Powell, awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize for his technique to study nuclear process and his discovery of the pion
  • 1907 Birth of Guiseppe Occhialini, the Italian physicist who contributed to the discovery of the pion and after whom an IOP award is named
  • 1932 Birth of Sheldon Lee Glashow, awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for his work on electroweak theory

6 December 

  • 1778 Birth of Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, noted for discovery of two laws relating to gases

  • 1890 Birth of Yoshio Nishina, jointly responsible for the Klein-Nishina formula in quantum electrodynamics

7 December 

  • 1972 Apollo 17, the last mission of the first programme of sending humans to the moon, launches

  • 1995 The Galileo spacecraft, the first to orbit Jupiter, reached the planet six years after its launch
  • 1905 Birth of Gerard Kuiper, who had suggested the existence of what is now known as the Kuiper Belt – a region of our solar system found beyond Neptune consisting of many small bodies, much like the asteroid belt

8 December 

  • 1962 A Boeing 707 crashes after being struck by positive lightning, a phenomenon not accounted for in safety standards

  • 2010 SpaceX becomes the first private company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon

9 December 

  • 1917 Birth of James Rainwater, who won a share of the 1975 Nobel Prize for work on the structure of the atomic nucleus

  • 1926 Birth of Harry Way Kendall, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics for studies on inelastic scattering of electrons

10 December 

  • 1684 Edmund Halley reads Isaac Newton’s derivation of Kepler’s Laws from his theory of gravity to the Royal Society

  • 1815 Birth of Ada Lovelace, considered to be the first computer programmer

11 December 

  • 1972 Apollo 17 touches down in the last mission of the world’s first programme of manned moon landings

  • 1781 Birth of David Brewster, who discovered the laws of light polarization by reflection and refraction
  • 1863 Birth of Annie Jump Cannon, the compiler of the Henry Draper Star Catalogue featuring 225 000 stars
  • 1882 Birth of Max Born, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and the recipient of the 1954 Nobel Prize

12 December 

  • 1979 Abdus Salam, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize for his unification of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces, is awarded the Order of Excellence by the president of Pakistan

13 December 

  • 1972 Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt begin the last moonwalk of the Apollo programme, which would be completed the following day

  • 1724 Birth of Franz Aepinus, the first scientist to try to understand electricity and magnetism in terms of maths
  • 1923 Birth of Philip Warren Anderson, who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his studies of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems

14 December 

  • 1900 Max Planck presents a derivation of his blackbody radiation law, based on quantum mechanics, to the German Physical Society

  • 1962 The spacecraft Mariner 2 becomes the first to fly past Venus
  • 1972 The final moonwalk is completed, having begun the previous day
  • 1546 Birth of astronomer Tycho Brahe, known for his planetary observations – and his metal nose. Brahe’s data were used by Johannes Kepler in his discovery of the laws of planetary motion
  • 1922 Birth of Nikolay Basov, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize for work leading to the development of the laser

15 December 

  • 1970 Venera 7 lands on Venus in the first landing of a spacecraft on another planet, excluding crash landings

  • 2000 The Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s Reactor Three is closed down, completing the closure of the facility
  • 1852 Birth of Henri Becquerel, the co-discoverer of radioactivity
  • 1916 Birth of Maurice Wilkins, a pioneer of biophysics awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and James Watson for the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA

16 December 

  • 1776 Birth of Johann Wilhelm Ritter, discoverer of ultraviolet light

  • 1882 Birth of Walther Meissner, discoverer of the exclusion of a magnetic field from superconductors, an effect now named for him

17 December 

  • 1957 The first intercontinental ballistic missile is launched by the US

  • 2003 SpaceShipOne becomes the first privately funded manned spacecraft to travel at supersonic speed
  • 1706 Birth of Émilie du Châtelet, who first showed that the kinetic energy of a body is proportional to the square of its velocity rather than just to its velocity
  • 1797 Birth of Joseph Henry, the discoverer of electromagnetic self-inductance, after whom the SI unit of inductance is named

18 December 

19 December 

  • 1972 Apollo 17, the final mission of the world’s first programme of manned moon missions, returns to Earth

  • 1961 Birth of Eric Allin Cornell, who was the first to synthesise a Bose-Einstein condensate along with Carl E Wieman, for which they and Wolfgang Ketterle won the Nobel Prize in 2001

20 December 

  • 1951 A nuclear power plant in Idaho, USA becomes the first to generate electricity, powering four lightbulbs

  • 1901 Birth of Robert Van Der Graaff, the physicist and inventor after whom the generator common to school physics labs is named

21 December 

  • 1968 Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, is launched

22 December 

  • Solstice

23 December 

  • 1947 The first demonstration of a working transistor takes place at Bell Laboratories in the US

24 December 

  • 1968 The crew of Apollo 8 become the first humans to orbit the moon

  • 1761 Birth of Jean-Louis Pons, the astronomer who discovered a record 37 comets
  • 1818 Birth of James Prescott Joule, the pioneer of thermodynamics after whom the SI unit of energy is named

25 December 

  • 1968 Apollo 8 performs the first ever “Trans-Earth Injection”, a manouevre that will return the spacecraft home

  • 2003 The Beagle 2 Mars probe disappears
  • 1906 Birth of Ernst Ruska, designer of the electron microscope and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for his work in electron optics

26 December 

  • 1898 The discovery of radium is announced by Marie and Pierre Curie

  • 1791 Birth of Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the first computer

27 December 

  • 1968 Apollo 8 returns to Earth from the first manned mission to the moon, landing in the Pacific Ocean

  • 2004 The brightest known extra-solar event is witnessed as radiation from a soft gamma repeater 14.5 kiloparsecs away in the constellation of Sagittarius reaches the Earth
  • 1571 Birth of Johannes Kepler, who discovered three laws of planetary motion that would become the basis for Newton’s theory of gravity

28 December 

  • 1612 Neptune is observed for the first time – by Galileo, who wrongly catalogues the planet as a star

  • 1895 William Roentgen publishes his paper on the discovery of x-rays
  • 1882 Birth of Arthur Stanley Eddington, one of the early experts on the general theory of relativity
  • 1903 Birth of John von Neumann, who made important contributions to several areas of mathematical physics

29 December 

  • 1959 Richard Feynman gives a speech at a meeting of the American Physical Society that is considered to be the birth of nanotechnology

30 December 

  • 1924 The existence of galaxies outside our own is announced by Edwin Hubble

  • 1934 Birth of John N Bahcall, who jointly developed the standard model of the Milky Way galaxy, which places a massive black hole at its centre, and who contributed to the solar neutrino problem

31 December 

  • 1879 Thomas Edison carries out the first ever demonstration of incandescent lighting, in New Jersey

  • 1864 Birth of Robert Grant Aitken, the astronomer who made a catalogue of double stars, allowing calculation of stellar mass statistics

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