Guest Post: The Top 5 May 20ths Ever

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Five years ago today, The Last Word On Nothing was born. I’ve been Googling around, trying to figure out why anniversaries are a thing, but most of what pops up is drivel from couples counselors. Wikipedia offers some facts about Latin names. But what I’m really looking for is why we celebrate anniversaries, why they make us feel so many feels.

Every day, newspapers and websites the world over publish “this day in history” lists. And every morning, Facebook sends me a “You have memories with” so-and-so notification, accompanied by old photos of so-and-so and me that were posted on this day in years past. These photos make me feel happy, and sad, and somehow…special?

It’s arbitrary specialness, of course: Every day is an anniversary for a long list of personal and historical events, significant and trivial. But we love to remember them regardless. It’s nostalgia, sure, but more analytical than that. We’re looking for patterns, connections with the past — either in the way that things have changed, or haven’t.

As it turns out, May 20 has historically been pretty important for science and technology, and not just because of LWON’s arrival in 2010.



1. May 20, 1570: The first atlas

Nearly 450 years ago, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was published by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum included 53 sheets depicting 70 maps and explanatory text. “Cut to uniform size and printed as a single-sized compilation of maps, historical narratives, and source references, the Theatrum was from the outset an encyclopedic description of the world like none before it,” according to the Library of Congress website.

The atlas was hugely popular, apparently because of an emerging middle class in the Netherlands who wanted to learn about the wider world. It went through 31 editions in about 40 years, before other mapmakers began finding inaccuracies, particularly in North and South America.

Today’s most popular world atlas isn’t confined to one book, or even to paper. But one thing hasn’t changed since its predecessor appeared. Theatrum Orbit Terrarum is Latin for “Theatre of the World,” which implies, according to the Boston Public Library, “that the Earth was a stage on which human actions unfolded.”

2. May 20, 1875: Treaty of the Meter

No, this wasn’t the first day of the metric system. That happened almost a century earlier, when the French revolution put forth a standardized meter and kilogram “for all people for all time.” The reference copies were owned by France until May 20, 1875, when delegates from 17 countries signed the Convention du Mètre, aka the Treaty of the Meter, which gave control of the standards to a new, international body. In 1960, this became the International System of Units, which now includes not only the kilogram and meter, but the ampere, second, kelvin, mole, and candela (a unit of luminous intensity).

Who cares, you say? Where would science be without a proper reference standard? Where would any of us be? Can you imagine the utter chaos that would result if the United States, say, was using an entirely different system than Europe?!

3. May 20, 1927, and 3.5. May 20, 1932: Long, long flights

On the morning of May 20, 1927, Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh boarded the Spirit of St. Louis and flew from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France, completing the first ever solo flight across the Atlantic.

Five years later, on another May 20, Amelia Earhart flew from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, completing the first ever solo flight by a woman across the Atlantic.

Every American child learns about Lindbergh and Earhart, aviation heroes. (And every girl, at some point, will dress up as Earhart.) But as I read about them now, their stories seem to say a lot more about media and celebrity than ingenuity and adventure. In March of 1932, Lindberg’s baby son was kidnapped and murdered. The press attention was so intense, so terrible, that the Lindbergs secretly boarded a boat and fled to Europe.

As for Earhart, before making her big flight she spent years campaigning for her celebrity status. Her face looked a lot like Lindberg’s, and “Lady Lindy” smartly capitalized on that — writing a book, going on lecture tours, and promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes and other products. Her fame has only grown since 1937, when a plane she was flying disappeared somewhere, perhaps on an island, in the Pacific Ocean. As the novelist Jane Mendelsohn wrote about Earhart a few years ago, “by disappearing she remains both dead and alive, a symbol, a myth, a star on which to hang our fantasies.”

4. May 20, 1983: HIV virus isolated from a patient

Just two years into the AIDS epidemic, on May 20, 1983, two papers were published in the journal Science that were hugely important for our understanding of the disease. In one, Luc Montagnier and his colleagues from the Pasteur Institute in France isolated a virus, which they later called LAV, from the lymph node of a 33-year-old gay man with the early symptoms of AIDS. In the other, Robert Gallo’s team from the National Cancer Institute isolated a virus, which they called HTLV-1, from a 32-year-old gay man. As Gallo later confirmed,  Montagnier’s virus was HIV, and the definitive cause of AIDS. The discovery earned Montagnier a Nobel prize in 2008. Gallo got squat.

HIV is one of the great success stories, perhaps the great success story, of modern medical research. It took just four years from the first isolation of HIV to the first powerful treatment against it, AZT. About a decade after that came the drug cocktails that helped change the disease from deadly to chronic, and now scientists are working on a full-out cure. That’s not to say everything is rosy. Now, like too many other diseases, HIV is a largely problem of money and access.

5. May 20, 1990: Hubble sends its first image back to Earth

The Hubble Space Telescope, which hovers just outside of Earth’s atmosphere, is known for its stunning pictures. But the first one it sent back to us, on May 20, 1990, wasn’t much to look at. It’s an ugly, blurry depiction of the Carina constellation (above, right), only slightly less blurry than what a ground-based telescope (above, left) produced.

The flaw (something about a mirror) causing the blurriness was eventually fixed, allowing Hubble to become the cosmic superstar it is today. But its life is coming to an end; the last and final time NASA sent out a shuttle to service Hubble was 2009.

It’s hard to put a number on how much Hubble has contributed to astronomy, but people try, anyway. A 2001 paper found that although Hubble science resulted in 15 times as many citations as ground-based telescopes, it cost more than 100 times as much. Apparently we think it’s worth it: In 2018 Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to debut, at a cost of more than $8 billion. Let’s hope its first picture is prettier than Hubble’s.

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Best-of lists are almost as arbitrary as anniversaries. For this one, I could have just as easily included my high school graduation (May 20, 2001), or the day that, supposedly, shoes were first made for right and left feet (May 20, 1310), or the day that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were first published in London (May 20, 1609). And we could no doubt find lots of amazing/important/interesting things that happened on May 19, or on May 21. But those wouldn’t make today feel as special as it is.

Happy 5th, LWON!

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Image Credits: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum atlasWikipedia; old scale — Flickr; Amelia Flickr; HIV-infected T cell — NIAID; Carina cluster stars  NASA.

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