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


1 May 

  • 1930 Pluto is given its name – it was chosen by a vote from the members of the Lowell Observatory, where the dwarf planet was discovered, after having been suggested by an 11-year-old girl in Oxford, Venetia Burney

  • 1910 Birth of J Allen Hynek, the astrophysicist and ufologist who served on three US Air Force studies of unexplained aerial phenomena

2 May 

  • 1952 The De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, makes its first flight

  • 2000 Access to accurate GPS readings is opened up to civilians – previously it was restricted to the United States military
  • 1802 Birth of Heinrich Gustav Magnus, notable for describing what is now known as the Magnus effect – that a spinning object moving through a fluid experiences a force perpendicular to the direction of motion
  • 1939 Birth of Sumio Iijima, the expert in electron microscopy who popularised research into carbon nanostructures

3 May 

  • 1715 A total solar eclipse occurs – there will not be another visible from London for 900 years

  • 1892 Birth of George Paget Thomson, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize for discovering that the electron has wavelike properties
  • 1902 Birth of Alfred Kastler, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966 "for the discovery and development of optical methods for studying Hertzian resonances in atoms"
  • 1933 Birth of Steven Weinberg, who, with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow, unified the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The three were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979

4 May 

  • 1675 The construction of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich is ordered by King Charles II

5 May 

  • 1921 Birth of Arthur Leonard Schawlow, who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize with Nicolaas Bloembergen and Kai Siegbahn for their work on laser spectroscopy

6 May 

  • 1872 Birth of Willem de Sitter, known for a paper coauthored with Albert Einstein in which the existence of dark matter is first postulated, as well as for his model of a universe without matter that is exponentially expanding

  • 1916 Birth of Robert H Dicke, who, independently of George Gamov, predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background, and who invented the lock-in amplifier

7 May 

  • 1952 Geoffrey WA Dummer of the Royal Radar Establishment presents the idea of the microchip to the Symposium on Progress in Quality Electronic Components in Washington, DC

  • 1958 Birth of Mark G Kuzyk, notable for his observation of what is now known as the Kuzyk quantum gap – a discrepancy between the theoretical maximum strength with which light interacts with matter and that actually observed in real molecules

8 May 

  • 1927 The first attempt is made at a non-stop transatlantic flight by Charles Nungesser and Francois Colil; their biplane the White Bird disappears

9 May 

  • 1927 Birth of biophysicist Manfred Eigen, who was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Ronald George Wreyford Norrish and George Porter for studies of fast chemical reactions

10 May 

  • 1960 The American nuclear submarine USS Triton becomes the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe underwater, following the same course as Ferdinand Magellan but remaining submerged

  • 1788 Birth of Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who made significant contributions to the theory of wave optics and who invented the Fresnel Lens used in lighthouses

11 May 

  • 1871 Birth of Frank Schlesinger, the astronomer who pioneered the use of photographic plates, rather than direct visual observation

  • 1918 Birth of Richard Feynman, best known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, for which he received the 1965 Nobel Prize along with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga
  • 1924 Birth of Antony Hewish, winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize along with Martin Ryle for their development of aperture synthesis in radio astronomy and its use to discover pulsars

12 May 

  • 1941 The Z3, the first programmable, fully automatic computer in the world, is unveiled in Berlin by the civil engineer Konrad Zuse. It was destroyed in 1943 during aerial bombardment of the city

  • 1965 The Soviet probe Luna 5 crashes on the Moon

13 May 

  • 1861 John Tebbut discovers the comet C/1861 J1, one of eight classified as “great comets” – those that become very bright – during the 19th century

  • 1880 Thomas Edison performs the first test of his electric railway in Menlo Park, New Jersey – the town has since been renamed Edison in his honour

14 May 

  • 1973 Launch of the US space station Skylab

  • 1899 Birth of Pierre Victor Auger, after whom Auger Electrons are named – those occasionally emitted when another electron fills a vacancy in an inner shell of an atom

15 May 

  • 1618 Johannes Kepler confirms his third law of planetary motion (“the square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit” ), which he’d previously rejected

  • 1859 Birth of Pierre Curie, winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize jointly with his wife Marie Curie and with Henri Becquerel for their research on radiation
  • 1951 Birth of Frank Wilczek, who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize together with David Gross and H David Politzer for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in interactions involving the strong nuclear force

16 May 

  • 1891 The International Electro-Technical Exhibition is held in Frankfurt, Germany. Among the demonstrations was the first long-distance transmission of high-power, three-phase electricity – the most commonly used form today – which was generated more than 100 miles away in Lauffen

  • 1950 Birth of Johannes Georg Bednorz, who would share the 1987 Nobel Prize with K Alex Müller for their discovery of high-temperature superconductivity

17 May 

  • 1969 The Soviet probe Venera 6 descends into the atmosphere of Venus and sends back what data it can before being crushed by pressure

  • 1983 The US Department of Energy releases documents describing the world’s largest mercury-pollution event at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the successor to the institution that hosted the Manhattan Project during the second world war

18 May 

  • 1850 Birth of Oliver Heaviside, the physicist and engineer who introduced complex numbers into the study of electrical circuits

  • 1910 Earth passes through the tail of Halley ’s Comet
  • 1958 A world airspeed record of 1404 miles per hour is set by an F104 Starfighter jet
  • 1969 Apollo 10 is launched as part of the programme aimed at sending humans to the moon
  • 1974 India conducts a successful nuclear weapon test, making it the world’s sixth known nuclear power
  • 2005 Images from the Hubble Space Telescope show that Pluto has two more moons, Nix and Hydra, in addition to its largest satellite Charon

19 May 

  • 1918 Birth of Abraham Pais, whose ideas, along with those of Murray Gell-Mann, led to the idea of the quantum number now called “strangeness”

  • 1961 Venera 1 becomes the first man-made object to perform a flyby of another planet as it passes Venus; however it fails to return any data having previously lost contact with Earth

20 May 

21 May 

  • 1792 Birth of Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, after whom the Coriolis Effect is named

  • 1921 Birth of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who contributed to the largest thermonuclear weapon ever detonated – the 50MT Tsar Bomba – and who was later awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize after working to halt nuclear testing
  • 1946 A criticality accident occurs with a plutonium weapon core at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US; the resulting radiation kills physicist Louis Slotin
  • 2010 A spacecraft driven by a solar sail is launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; it would fly past Venus a year later in the first successful demonstration of this means of propulsion between planets

22 May 

  • 1906 Orville and Wilbur Wright are granted a US patent for their aeroplane design

23 May 

  • 1908 Birth of John Bardeen, a double winner of a Nobel Prize for Physics – the first being the 1956 award, jointly with William Shockley and Walter Brattain, for their invention of the transistor, and the second, in 1972 with Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer for their work on superconductivity

24 May 

  • 1844 In the US, the first communication on a telegraph line is made by Samuel Morse from Washington, D.C. to his assistant in Baltimore, Maryland

  • 1686 Birth of Gabriel Fahrenheit, the inventor and thermometer-maker after whom the temperature scale is named

25 May 

  • 240 BC Halley’s Comet reaches its perihelion for the first time in recorded human history

  • 1865 Birth of Pieter Zeeman, who shared the 1902 Nobel Prize with Hendrik Lorentz for his discovery of the Zeeman effect – the phenomenon in which spectral lines split into several components in the presence of a static magnetic field
  • 1921 Birth of Jack Steinberger, who discovered the muon neutrino along with Leon Lederman and Melvin Schwarz, for which the trio were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988

26 May 

  • 1970 The Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144 aircraft becomes the first commercial transport plane to travel faster than twice the speed of sound

  • 1667 Birth of Abraham de Moivre, whose eponymous formula connects complex numbers with trigonometry

27 May 

  • 1897 Birth of John Cockcroft, who shared the 1951 Nobel Prize with Ernest Walton after the pair became the first to split the atom

28 May 

  • 585BC A solar eclipse occurs, as predicted, during what would become known as the Battle of the Eclipse between the Medes and the Lydians. The precise knowledge of this date, combined with the ability to calculate the dates of other eclipses, allows other historical dates to be determined accurately

  • 1998 Pakistan begins a series of nuclear-weapon tests
  • 2002 The Mars Odyssey spacecraft discovers ice
  • 1872 Birth of Marian Smoluchowski, the pioneer of statistical physics
  • 1879 Birth of Milutin Milanković, known for his theory of ice ages that suggested a relationship between long-term variations in the Earth’s climate and changes in its orbit

29 May 

  • 1919 Arthur Eddington’s observation of light from a distant source being bent by the Sun, during a total solar eclipse, confirms the predictions made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity

  • 1794 Birth of Johann Heinrich von Mädler, the astronomer who first mapped the Moon and Mars

30 May 

  • 1966 The Surveyor 1 spacecraft is launched. It will later become the first to land on an extraterrestrial body when it touches down on the Moon

  • 1423 Birth of Georg von Peuerbach, one of the first Western observational astronomers
  • 1908 Birth of Hannes Alfvén, who won the 1970 Nobel Prize for his work on magnetohydrodynamics and after whom Alfvén waves are names
  • 1934 Birth of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, the first person to perform a spacewalk, in March 1965

31 May 

  • 1931 Birth of John Robert Schrieffer, joint winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize along with John Bardeen and Leon N Cooper for the microscopic theory of superconductivity, now known as BCS theory

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