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.
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.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986 was a life-altering event for many, ranging from people who had tuned in to watch the launch of a Space Shuttle with America’s first teacher onboard, to the countless people involved in the manufacturing, maintenance and launching of these complex spacecraft. Yet as traumatizing as this experience was, there was one group of people for whom their dire predictions and warnings to NASA became suddenly reality in the worst way possible.
This group consisted of engineers at Morton-Thiokol, responsible for components in the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs). They had warned against launching the Shuttle due to the very cold weather, fearing that the O-ring seals in the SRBs at these low temperatures would not be able to keep the SRB’s hot gases from destroying the SRB and the Shuttle along with it.
Allan McDonald was one of these engineers who did everything they could to stop the launch. Until his death on March 6th of 2021, the experiences surrounding the Challenger disaster led him to become an outspoken voice on the topic of ethical decision-making, as well as a famous example of making the right decision, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
The name Rube Goldberg has long been synonymous with any overly-built contraption played for laughs that solves a simple problem through complicated means. But it might surprise you to learn that the man himself was not an engineer or inventor by trade — at least, not for long. Rube’s father was adamant that he become an engineer and so he got himself an engineering degree and a job with the city. Rube lasted six months engineering San Francisco’s sewer systems before quitting to pursue his true passion: cartooning.
Rube’s most famous cartoons — the contraptions that quickly became his legacy — were a tongue-in-cheek critique meant to satirize the tendency of technology to complicate our lives in its quest to simplify them. Interestingly, a few other countries have their own version of Rube Goldberg. In the UK it’s Heath Robinson, and in Denmark it’s Robert Storm Petersen, aka Storm P.
Rube Goldberg was a living legend who loved to poke fun at everything happening in the world around him. He became a household name early in his cartooning career, and was soon famous enough to endorse everything from cough drops to cigarettes. By 1931, Rube’s name was in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, his legacy forever cemented as the inventor of complicated machinery designed to perform simple tasks. As one historian put it, Rube’s influence on culture is hard to overstate.
These days, nearly everyone communicates through some kind of keyboard, whether they are texting, emailing, or posting on various internet discussion forums. Talking over the phone is almost outmoded at this point. But only a few decades ago, the telephone was king of real-time communication. It was and still is a great invention, but unfortunately the technology left the hearing and speaking-impaired communities on an island of silence.
Engineer and professor Paul Taylor was born deaf in 1939, long before cochlear implants or the existence of laws that called for testing and early identification of hearing impairment in infants. At the age of three, his mother sent him by train to St. Louis to live at a boarding school called the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID).
Here, he was outfitted with a primitive hearing aid and learned to read lips, speak, and use American sign language. At the time, this was the standard plan for deaf and hearing-impaired children — to attend such a school for a decade or so and graduate with the social and academic tools they needed to succeed in public high schools and universities.
After college, Paul became an engineer and in his free time, a champion for the deaf community. He was a pioneer of Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf, better known as TDD or TTY equipment in the US. Later in life, he helped write legislation that became part of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
I’d be surprised if you weren’t sitting within fifty feet of one of James Edward Maceo West’s most well-known inventions — the electret microphone. Although MEMS microphones have seen a dramatic rise as smartphone technology progresses, electret microphones still sit atop the throne of low-cost and high-performance when it comes to capturing audio. What’s surprising about this world-changing invention is that the collaboration with co-inventor Gerhard Sessler began while James West was still at university, with the final version of the electret springing to life at Bell Labs just four years after his graduation.
A Hacker’s Upbringing
James’ approach to learning sounds very familiar: “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger. I had this need to know what was inside.” He mentions a compulsive need to understand how things work, and an inability to move on until he has unlocked that knowledge. Born in 1931, an early brush with mains voltage started him on his journey.
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.
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 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.