Reader [Eric Mockler] brought Louis “Lebel” Wichinsky to our attention, a colorful inventor he ran into some years back in the Borscht Belt of Upstate New York. Described as a Mel Brooks doppelgänger, Lebel was born the son of a baker in Hurleyville NY. During WW2 he served in England where he lodged with two brothers who also owned a bakery. When his British friends suggested he should build a bagel machine because “you Yanks can do anything”, he accepted their challenge and began working on a design. Despite taking a detour through Israel as an aircraft mechanic on his journey home, he finally succeeded in 1964 after 20-some years of tinkering. A patent followed in 1968, despite discovering that someone else had independently invented similar device.
We as humans are limited in the ways we can look at things ourselves, and rely on on the different perspectives and insights of others to help make sense of things. All it takes is one person to look at a data set and find something completely different that changes our fundamental perception of the universe.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that stars are primarily made of hydrogen and helium, at a time when astronomers thought that the Sun and the Earth had no significant elemental differences. She proposed that hydrogen wasn’t only more common, but that it was a million times more common.
This outlandish conclusion was roundly dismissed at the time, and she aquiesced to tone down some of the conclusions in her thesis, until her findings were widely confirmed a few years later. Truly groundbreaking, the discovery of the prevalence of hydrogen in stars paved the way for our current understanding of their role as the furnaces for the heavier elements that we know and love, and indeed are composed of.
Meteorites, Comets, and Bee Orchids
Cecilia Helena Payne was born May 10th, 1900 in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England. She was one of three children born to Emma and Edward, a lawyer, historian, and musician. Her father died with she was four years old, leaving her mother to raise the family alone. Continue reading “Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Saw Through The Stars”
In history there are people whose legacy becomes larger than life. Ask anyone who built and flew the first airplane, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t at least aware of the accomplishments of the Wright brothers. In a similar vein, Chuck Yeager’s pioneering trip into supersonic territory with the Bell X-1 airplane made his name essentially synonymous with the whole concept of flying faster than the speed of sound. This wasn’t the sole thing he did, of course: he also fought in WWII and Vietnam and worked as an instructor and test pilot, flying hundreds of different airplanes during his career.
Yeager’s insistence on making that first supersonic flight, despite having broken two ribs days earlier, became emblematic of the man himself: someone who never let challenges keep him from exploring the limits of the countless aircraft he flew, while inspiring others to give it their best shot. Perhaps ironically, it could be said that the only thing that ever held Yeager back was only having a high school diploma.
On December 7, 2020, Chuck Yeager died at the age of 97, leaving behind a legacy that will continue to inspire many for decades to come.
Some people invent with the intent of seeking fame and prestige. Few inventors seem to truly care about other people the way that Garrett Augustus Morgan did. His inventions saved many lives, including those of a few people who were rescued by Garrett himself after an explosion tore through a tunnel beneath Lake Erie.
Though he had little formal education, Garrett’s curiosity took him into many fields from sewing machine repair to gas masks to transportation problems. He achieved great success and improved many lives along the way.
Of Seams and Straighteners
Garrett Augustus Morgan was born March 4th, 1877 in Claysville, Kentucky. He was the seventh of eleven children born to Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan, who had both been slaves. His mother was part Native American.
Armed with a sixth grade education and ten cents in his pocket, Garrett left home at fourteen look for work, which was common for kids his age at the time. He first landed in Cincinnati and spent a few years working as a handyman.
In 1895 he moved to Cleveland and started repairing sewing machines. This is where he developed his taste for the way things work. After a decade or so, he opened his own sewing machine shop. He had gotten married in the meantime, and a few years later, he and his wife Mary Anne, a seamstress, opened a discount ladies clothing store and hired thirty-two employees to make all the suits, coats, and dresses in-house.
One day Garrett was sewing a woolen fabric that kept getting scorched by the extremely high speed of the sewing machine needle. He experimented with a few chemicals to coat the needle and keep it cool. As the story goes, he wiped his hands off on a piece of cloth and went to lunch. When he came back, the wavy fibers in the fabric had been completely straightened by the chemical.
Curious, he tried the solution on his neighbor’s dog’s fur, and it straightened that, too. Then he worked up the nerve to try it on his own hair, and discovered the hair relaxer. He turned the solution into a cream and established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to sell his hair relaxer to African Americans. The company was terrifically successful and Garrett earned enough money from sales to keep inventing.
It sounds like science fiction — and until 2012, the ability to cheaply and easily edit strings of DNA was exactly that. But as it turns out, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is a completely natural function in which bacteria catalogs its interactions with viruses by taking a snippet of the virus’ genetic material and filing it away for later.
Now, two women have won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for developing a method for genome editing”. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna leveraged CRISPR into a pair of genetic scissors and showed how sharp they are by proving that they can edit any string of DNA this way. Since Emmanuelle and Jennifer published their 2012 paper on CRISPR/Cas9, researchers have used these genetic scissors to create drought-resistant plants and look for new gene-based cancer therapies. Researchers are also hoping to use CRISPR/Cas9 to cure inherited diseases like Huntington’s and sickle cell anemia.
The discovery started with Emmanuelle Charpentier’s investigation of the Streptococcus pyogenes bacterium. She was trying to understand how its genes are regulated and was hoping to make an antibiotic. Once she teamed up with Jennifer Doudna, they found a scientific breakthrough instead.
Emmanuelle Charpentier Fights Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Emmanuelle Charpentier was born December 11th, 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. She studied biochemistry, microbiology, and genetics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, which is now known as Sorbonne University. Then she received a research doctorate from Institut Pasteur and worked as a university teaching assistant and research scientist. Dr. Charpentier is currently a director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and in 2018, she founded an independent research unit.
Upon completion of her doctorate, Dr. Charpentier spent a few years working in the States before winding up at the University of Vienna where she started a research group. Her focus was still on the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes millions of people to suffer through infections like tonsillitis and impetigo each year. It also causes sepsis, which officially makes it a flesh-eating bacterium.
These days, we have LED light bulbs that will last a decade. But it wasn’t so long ago that incandescent lamps were all we had, and they burned out after several months. Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs used bamboo filaments that burned out very quickly. An inventor and draftsman named Lewis Latimer improved Edison’s filament by encasing it in cardboard, earning himself a patent the process.
Lewis had a hard early life, but he succeeded in spite of the odds and his lack of formal education. He was a respected draftsman who earned several patents and worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Although Lewis didn’t invent the light bulb, he definitely made it better and longer-lasting. Continue reading “Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light”
Decades ago, Einstein predicted the existence of something he didn’t believe in — black holes. Ever since then, people have been trying to get a glimpse of these collapsed stars that represent the limits of our understanding of physics.
For the last 25 years, Andrea Ghez has had her sights set on the black hole at the center of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A*, trying to conclusively prove it exists. In the early days, her proposal was dismissed entirely. Then she started getting lauded for it. Andrea earned a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008. In 2012, she was the first woman to receive the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Now Andrea has become the fourth woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics for her discovery. She shares the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel for discoveries relating to black holes. UCLA posted her gracious reaction to becoming a Nobel Laureate.
A Star is Born
Andrea Mia Ghez was born June 16th, 1965 in New York City, but grew up in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. Her love of astronomy was launched right along with Apollo program. Once she saw the moon landing, she told her parents that she wanted to be the first female astronaut. They bought her a telescope, and she’s had her eye on the stars ever since. Now Andrea visits the Keck telescopes — the world’s largest — six times a year.
Andrea was always interested in math and science growing up, and could usually be found asking big questions about the universe. She earned a BS from MIT in 1987 and a PhD from Caltech in 1992. While she was still in graduate school, she made a major discovery concerning star formation — that most stars are born with companion star. After graduating from Caltech, Andrea became a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA so she could get access to the Keck telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
The Center of the Galaxy
Since 1995, Andrea has pointed the Keck telescopes toward the center of our galaxy, some 25,000 light years away. There’s a lot of gas and dust clouding the view, so she and her team had to get creative with something called adaptive optics. This method works by deforming the telescope’s mirror in real time in order to overcome fluctuations in the atmosphere.
Thanks to adaptive optics, Andrea and her team were able to capture images that were 10-30 times clearer than what was previously possible. By studying the orbits of stars that hang out near the center, she was able to determine that a supermassive black hole with four millions times the mass of the sun must lie there. Thanks to this telescope hack, Andrea and other scientists will be able to study the effects of black holes on gravity and galaxies right here at home. You can watch her explain her work briefly in the video after the break. Congratulations, Dr. Ghez, and here’s to another 25 years of fruitful research.