Of all the lessons that life hands us, one of the toughest is that you can be right about something but still come up holding the smelly end of the stick. Typically this is learned early in life, but far too many of us avoid this harsh truth well into adulthood. And in those cases where being right is literally a matter of life or death, it’s even more difficult to learn that lesson.
For Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician-scientist in the mid-19th century, failure to learn that being right is attended by certain responsibilities had a very high cost. Ironically it would also save the lives of countless women with a revolutionary discovery that seems so simple today as to be self-obvious: that a doctor should wash his hands before seeing patients.
Imagine having to program your computer by rewiring it. For a brief period of time around the mid-1940s, the first general-purpose electronic computers worked that way. Computers like ENIAC initially had no internal storage for code. Programming it involved manipulating thousands of switches and cables. The positions of those switches and cables were the program.
Kathleen Booth began working on computers just as the idea of storing the program internally was starting to permeate through the small set of people building computers. As a result, she was one of the first programmers to work on software and is credited with inventing assembly language. But she also got her hands dirty with the hardware, having built a large portion of the computers which she programmed. She also did some early work with natural language processing and neural networks. And this was all before 1962, making her truly a pioneer. This then is her tale.
Chances are you have at least one radio that can receive FM stations. Even though FM is becoming less used now with Internet and satellite options, it still is more popular than the older AM radio bands. FM was the brainchild of an inventor you may have heard of — Edwin Armstrong — but you probably don’t know the whole story. It could make a sort of radio-themed soap opera. It is a story of innovation, but also a story of personal vanity, corporate greed, stubbornness, marital problems, and even suicide. The only thing missing is a long-lost identical twin sibling to turn it into a full telenovela.
Armstrong grew up in New York and because of an illness that gave him a tic and caused him to be homeschooled, he was somewhat of a loner. He threw himself into his interest in electric and mechanical devices. By 1909 he was enrolled in Columbia University where professors noted he was very focused on what interested him but indifferent to other studies. He was also known as someone more interested in practical results than theory. He received an electrical engineering degree in 1913.
Unlike a lot of college graduates, Armstrong didn’t go work for a big firm. Instead, he set up a self-financed independent lab at Columbia. This sounded good because it meant that he would own the patents on anything invented there. But it would turn out to be a two-edged sword.
It was early 1983 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris was busy at the centrifuge trying to detect the presence of a retrovirus. The sample in the centrifuge came from an AIDS patient, though the disease wasn’t called AIDS yet.
Just two years earlier in the US, a cluster of young men had been reported as suffering from unusual infections and forms of cancer normally experienced by the very old or by people using drugs designed to suppress the immune system. More cases were reported and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a task force to monitor the unusual outbreak. In December, the first scientific article about the outbreak was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
By May 1983, researchers Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute had isolated HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, and reported it in the journal Science. Both received the Nobel prize in 2008 for this work and the Nobel prize citation stated:
Never before have science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity.
It’s only fitting then that we take a closer look at one of these modern detectives of science, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, and what led to her discovery.
Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.
We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.
The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.
Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?
Whether you are young, old, or a time traveling Vulcan, something unites all of us globally: the innocent LEGO blocks that encourage creativity over spoon-fed entertainment. Have you noticed the excess of zombified children and adults alike drooling over their collective screens lately? Back in the ancient times, all a child needed to create hours of joy were plastic interlocking bricks and a place for their parents to trip over them. The LEGO Group harbored the inspiration of our childhood inventiveness, and none of it would have been possible without the founder, Ole Kirk Kristiansen (or Christiansen). The humble carpenter from Denmark forever made his mark on the little Scandinavian country, one brick at a time.
Well, maybe not at first. You see the plastic LEGO bricks we all know and love were initially made of wood. And they were also not actually bricks.