The name Gladys West is probably unfamiliar, but she was part of creating something you probably use often enough: GPS. You wouldn’t think a child who grew up on a sharecropping farm would wind up as an influential mathematician, but perhaps watching her father work very hard for very little and her mother working for a tobacco company made her realize that she wanted more for herself. Early on, she decided that education was the way out. She made it all the way to the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
While she was there she changed the world with — no kidding — mathematics. While she didn’t single-handedly invent satellite navigation, her work was critical to the systems we take for granted today.
When Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk reached the boundary of space aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule earlier today, it marked the end of a journey she started 60 years ago. In 1961 she became the youngest member of what would later become known as the “Mercury 13”, a group of accomplished female aviators that volunteered to be put through the same physical and mental qualification tests that NASA’s Mercury astronauts went through. But the promising experiment was cut short by the space agency’s rigid requirements for potential astronauts, and what John Glenn referred to in his testimony to the Committee on Science and Astronautics as the “social order” of America at the time.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, something sort of strange happened in the United States. The infant mortality rate went into decline, but the number of babies that died within 24 hours of birth didn’t budge at all. It sounds terrible, but back then, many babies who weren’t breathing well or showed other signs of a failure to thrive were usually left to die and recorded as stillborn.
As an obstetrical anesthesiologist, physician, and medical researcher, Virginia Apgar was in a great position to observe fresh newborns and study the care given to them by doctors. She is best known for inventing the Apgar Score, which is is used to quickly rate the viability of newborn babies outside the uterus. Using the Apgar Score, a newborn is evaluated based on heart rate, reflex irritability, muscle tone, respiratory effort, and skin color and given a score between zero and two for each category. Depending on the score, the baby would be rated every five minutes to assess improvement. Virginia’s method is still used today, and has saved many babies from being declared stillborn.
Virginia wanted to be a doctor from a young age, specifically a surgeon. Despite having graduated fourth in her class from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Virginia was discouraged from becoming a surgeon by a chairman of surgery and encouraged to go to school a little bit longer and study anesthesiology instead. As unfortunate as that may be, she probably would have never have created the Apgar Score with a surgeon’s schedule. Continue reading “Virginia Apgar May Have Saved Your Life”→
The unspoken promise of new technologies is that they will advance and enhance our picture of the world — that goes double for the ones that are specifically designed to let us look closer at the physical world than we’ve ever been able to before. One such advancement was the invention of X-ray crystallography that let scientists peer into the spatial arrangements of atoms within a molecule. Kathleen Lonsdale got in on the ground floor of X-ray crystallography soon after its discovery in the early 20th century, and used it to prove conclusively that the benzene molecule is a flat hexagon of six carbon atoms, ending a decades-long scientific dispute once and for all.
Benzene is an organic chemical compound in the form of a colorless, flammable liquid. It has many uses as an additive in gasoline, and it is used to make plastics and synthetic rubber. It’s also a good solvent. Although the formula for benzene had been known for a long time, the dimensions and atomic structure remained a mystery for more than sixty years.
Kathleen Lonsdale was a crystallography pioneer and developed several techniques to study crystal structures using X-rays. She was brilliant, but she was also humble, hard-working, and adaptable, particularly as she managed three young children and a budding chemistry career. At the outbreak of World War II, she spent a month in jail for reasons related to her staunch pacifism, and later worked toward prison reform, visiting women’s prisons habitually.
After the war, Kathleen traveled the world to support movements that promote peace and was often asked to speak on science, religion, and the role of women in science. She received many honors in her lifetime, and became a Dame of the British Empire in 1956. Before all of that, she honored organic chemistry with her contributions.
You don’t often turn on a light and think, “That power company is sure on the ball!” You generally only think of them when the lights go out without warning. I think the same is true of search. You don’t use Google or DuckDuckGo or any of the other search engines and think “Wow! How awesome it is to have this much information at your fingertips.” Well. Maybe a little, but it is hard to remember just how hard it was to get at information in the pre-search-engine age.
I were thinking about this the other day when I read that Ruth Freitag had died last year. Ruth had the unglamorous but very important title of reference librarian. But she wasn’t just an ordinary librarian. She worked for the Library of Congress and was famous in certain circles, counting among her admirers Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan.
You might wonder why a reference librarian would have fans. Turns out, high-powered librarians do more than just find books on the shelves for you. They produced bibliographies. If you wanted to know about, say, Halley’s comet today, you’d just do a Google search. Even if you wanted to find physical books, there are plenty of places to search: Google Books, online bookstores, and so on. But in the 1970s your options were much more limited.
Turns out, Ruth had an interest and expertise in astronomy, but she also had a keen knowledge of science and technology in general. By assembling comprehensive annotated bibliographies she could point people like Asimov and Sagan to the books they needed just like we would use Google, today.
Leprosy is a bacterial disease that affects the skin, nerves, eyes, and mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract. It is transmitted via droplets and causes skin lesions and loss of sensation in these regions. Also known as Hansen’s disease after the 19th century scientist who discovered its bacterial origin, leprosy has been around since ancient times, and those afflicted have been stigmatized and outcast for just as long. For years, people were sent to live the rest of their days in leper colonies to avoid infecting others.
Until Alice Ball came along, the only thing that could be done for leprosy — injecting oil from the seeds of an Eastern evergreen tree — didn’t really do all that much to help. Eastern medicine has been using oil from the chaulmoogra tree since the 1300s to treat various maladies, including leprosy.
The problem is that although it somewhat effective, chaulmoogra oil is difficult to get it into the body. Ingesting it makes most people vomit. The stuff is too sticky to be applied topically to the skin, and injecting it causes the oil to clump in abscesses that make the patients’ skin look like bubble wrap.
In 1866, the Hawaiian government passed a law to quarantine people living with leprosy on the tiny island of Moloka’i. Every so often, a ferry left for the island and delivered these people to their eventual death. Most patients don’t die of leprosy, but from secondary infection or disease. By 1915, there were 1,100 people living on Moloka’i from all over the United States, and they were running out of room. Something had to be done.
Let’s face it — for the average person, math and formulas are not the most attractive side of physics. The fun is in the hands-on learning, the lab work, the live action demonstrations of Mother Nature’s power and prowess. And while it’s true that the student must be willing to learn, having a good teacher helps immensely.
Professor Julius Sumner Miller was energetic and enthusiastic about physics to the point of contagiousness. In pictures, his stern face commands respect. But in action, he becomes lovable. His demonstrations are dramatic, delightful, and about as far away from boring old math as possible. Imagine if Cosmo Kramer were a physics professor, or if that doesn’t give you an idea, just picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future (1985) with a thick New England accent and slightly darker eyebrows. Professor Miller’s was a shouting, leaping, arm-waving, whole-bodied approach to physics demonstrations. He was completely fascinated by physics, and deeply desired to understand it as best he could so that he could share the magic with people of all ages.
Professor Miller reached thousands of students in the course of his nearly 40-year teaching career, and inspired millions more throughout North America and Australia via television programs like TheMickey Mouse Club and Miller’s own show entitled Why Is It So? His love for science is indeed infectious, as you can see in this segment about the shock value of capacitors.