The Flight of the Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.

As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

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Ted Dabney, Atari, and the Video Game Revolution

It may be hard for those raised on cinematic video games to conceive of the wonder of watching a plain white dot tracing across a black screen, reflecting off walls and a bounced by a little paddle that responded instantly to the twist of a wrist. But there was a time when Pong was all we had, and it was fascinating. People lined up for hours for the privilege of exchanging a quarter for a few minutes of monochrome distraction. In an arcade stuffed with noisy pinball machines with garish artwork and flashing lights, Pong seemed like a calm oasis, and you could almost feel your brain doing the geometry to figure out where to place the paddle so as not to miss the shot.

As primitive as it now seems, Pong was at the forefront of the video game revolution, and that little game spawned an industry that raked in $108 billion last year alone. It also spawned one of the early success stories of the industry, Atari, a company founded in 1972. Just last week, Ted Dabney, one of the co-founders of Atari, died at the age of 81. It’s sad that we’re getting to the point where we’re losing some of the pioneers of the industry, but it’s the way of things. All we can do is reflect on Dabney’s life and legacy, and examine the improbable path that led him to be one of the fathers of the video game industry.

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Spanning The Tree : Dr Radia Perlman & Untangling Networks

As computer networks get bigger, it becomes increasingly hard to keep track of the flow of data over this network. How do you route data, making sure that the data is spread to all parts of the network? You use an algorithm called the spanning tree protocol — just one of the contributions to computer science of a remarkable engineer, Dr. Radia Perlman. But before she created this fundamental Internet protocol, she also worked on LOGO, the first programming language for children, creating a dialect for toddlers.

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Robert Hall and the Solid-State Laser

The debt we all owe must be paid someday, and for inventor Robert N. Hall, that debt came due in 2016 at the ripe age of 96. Robert Hall’s passing went all but unnoticed by everyone but his family and a few close colleagues at General Electric’s Schenectady, New York research lab, where Hall spent his remarkable career.

That someone who lives for 96% of a century would outlive most of the people he had ever known is not surprising, but what’s more surprising is that more notice of his life and legacy wasn’t taken. Without his efforts, so many of the tools of modern life that we take for granted would not have come to pass, or would have been delayed. His main contribution started with a simple but seemingly outrageous idea — making a solid-state laser. But he ended up making so many more contributions that it’s worth a look at what he accomplished over his long career.

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Richard Feynman: A Life Of Curiosity And Science

It was World War II and scientists belonging to the Manhattan Project worked on calculations for the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, in one of the buildings, future Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was cracking the combination lock on a safe because doing so intrigued him. That’s as good a broad summary of Feynman as any: scientific integrity with curiosity driving both his work and his fun.

If you’ve heard of him in passing it may be because of his involvement on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster commission or maybe you’ve learned something from one of his many lectures preserved on YouTube. But did you know he also played with electronics as a kid, and almost became an electrical engineer?

He was the type of person whom you might sum up by saying that he had an interesting life. The problem is, you have to wonder how he fit it all into one lifetime, let alone one article. We’ll just have to let our own curiosity pick and choose what to say about this curious character.

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Sophie Wilson: ARM and How Making Things Simpler Made Them Faster & More Efficient

Sophie Wilson is one of the leading lights of modern CPU design. In the 1980s, she and colleague Steve Furber designed the ARM architecture, a new approach to CPU design that made mobile computing possible. They did this by realizing that you could do more, and quicker, with less. If you’ve use a Raspberry Pi, or any of the myriad of embedded devices that run on ARM chips, you’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

It all began for Sophie Wilson with an electric lighter and a slot machine (or fruit machine, as they are called in the UK) in 1978. An aspiring thief had figured out that if you sparked an electric lighter next to the machine, the resulting wideband electromagnetic pulse could trigger the payout circuit. Electronics designer Hermann Hauser had been tasked with fixing the problem, and he turned to Wilson, a student working at his company.

Wilson quickly figured that if you added a small wideband radio receiver to detect the pulse, you could suppress the false payout, foiling the thief. Impressed with this innovation, Hauser challenged Wilson to build a computer over the summer holidays, based in part on a design for an automated cow feeder that Wilson had created at university. Wilson created this prototype computer that looked more like a hand-wired calculator than a modern computer, but the design became the basis for the Acorn System 1, the first computer that Hauser’s new company Acorn Computers launched in 1979. Continue reading “Sophie Wilson: ARM and How Making Things Simpler Made Them Faster & More Efficient”

Émilie du Châtelet: An Energetic Life

Émilie du Châtelet lived a wild, wild life. She was a brilliant polymath who made important contributions to the Enlightenment, including adding a mathematical statement of conservation of energy into her French translation of Newton’s Principia, debunking the phlogiston theory of fire, and suggesting that what we would call infrared light carried heat.

She had good company; she was Voltaire’s lover and companion for fifteen years, and she built a private research institution out of a château with him before falling in love with a younger poet. She was tutored in math by Maupertuis and corresponded with Bernoulli and Euler. She was an avid gambler and handy with a sword. She died early, at 41 years, but those years that she did live were pretty amazing. Continue reading “Émilie du Châtelet: An Energetic Life”