The tale of much of Barbara McClintock’s life is that of the scientist working long hours with a microscope seeking to solve mysteries. The mystery she spent most of her career trying to solve was how all cells in an organism can contain the same DNA, and yet divide to produce cells serving different functions; basically how cells differentiate. And for that, she got a Nobel prize all to herself, which is no small feat either.
Becoming a Scientist
McClintock was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. From age three until beginning school, she lived with her aunt in Brooklyn, New York while her father strove financially to start up a medical practice. She was a solitary and independent-minded child, a trait she later called her “capacity to be alone”.
In 1919, she began her studies at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and took her first course in genetics in 1921. A year later, due to the interest she showed in genetics, she was invited to take the graduate genetics course at Cornell. It was here that she became interested in the new field of cytogenetics, specifically of maize or corn. Cytogenetics studies how the chromosomes relate to cell behavior, particularly during cell division. Chromosomes are the long strands of DNA within the nucleus of every cell and shown here in the photo at a time when they are condensed, or coiled up.
While still at Cornell she developed a number of methods for visualizing and characterizing maize which ended up in textbooks. She also became the first to describe the morphology of the ten maize chromosomes, basically their form and structural relationships, which then allowed her to discover more about the chromosomes. One of her colleagues observed that ten of the seventeen significant advances made in the field at Cornell between 1929 and 1935 were hers. This was only the first step in what would be the remarkable career of a very well respected scientist.
On an October night in 1847, a telescope on the roof of the Pacific National Bank building on Nantucket Island was trained onto the deep black sky. At the eyepiece was an accomplished amateur astronomer on the verge of a major discovery — a new comet, one not recorded in any almanac. The comet, which we today know by the dry designator C/1847 T1, is more popularly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” named after its discoverer, a 29-year old woman named Maria Mitchell. The discovery of the comet would, after a fashion, secure her reputation as a scholar and a scientist, but it was hardly her first success, and it wouldn’t be her last by a long shot.
The feature of being easier to write than assembly is often seen as the biggest advantage of high-level programming languages. The other benefit that comes with them is portability. With high-level languages, algorithms can be developed independently from the underlying hardware. This allows software to live on once the hardware becomes obsolete.
The compiler was a concept that was met with resistance when it was first introduced. This was at a time when computers were custom-built machines bearing individual names like ENIAC, UNIVAC and Mark I. A time when the global demand for computers was estimated to be around five units by the CEO of IBM. In this scenario, it took a visionary to foresee a future where the number of computers would outgrow the number of programmers and hardware would evolve so much faster than software that a compiler would make sense. One visionary was [Grace Hopper].
It’s a standard science trivia question: Who discovered the structure of DNA? With the basic concepts of molecular biology now taught at a fairly detailed level in grade school, and with DNA being so easy to isolate that it makes a good demonstration project for school or home, everyone knows the names of Watson and Crick. But not many people know the story behind one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, or the name of the scientist without whose data Watson and Crick were working blind: Rosalind Franklin.
Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate and encourage women in the fields of science and technology. The day is named after Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron. (You can see why we just call her Ada Lovelace.) She was a brilliant mathematician, and the writer of what’s probably the first real computer program — it computed the Bernoulli series. At least according Charles Babbage, in correspondence to Michael Faraday, she was an “enchanted math fairy”. Not only a proto-coder, she wrote almost all of the existing documentation about Babbage’s computation engine. She’s a stellar example of a brilliant and unique individual. If you were looking for a superhero to represent women in science and tech, Ada’s a good pick.
In our minds, she gets stiff competition from Marie Curie. Curie did fundamental research on radioactivity, is one of two people with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and got to name the two elements that she discovered. 2011 was the Year of Marie Curie in France and Poland. She has her own year in addition to her own unit. Even Spiderman doesn’t have those radioactive super powers!
Don’t Need Another Hero?
But on a day dedicated to getting more women into the technical arts, it’s also a little bit daunting to pick Lovelace or Curie as a symbol. Are you ever going to have something that equals “first computer program” or “two Nobel Prizes” on your résumé? We aren’t. It’s great to have heroes, but maybe we need more than just heroes — we also need mentors.
She explains the process of dumping firmware from a Wacom tablet by hacking what the USB descriptors share. This involves altering the power rail smoothing circuit, building her own clock control board to work with the target hardware and a ChipWhisperer, then iterating the glitch until she hones in on the perfect attack.
This year we spotted [Debra Ansell] at Maker Faire, not as an exhibitor but an attendee taking her newest creation out in the wild. [Debra’s] LED matrix handbag is a marvel of fabrication — both design and execution are so great it is hard to believe this is not a commercially available product. But no, the one-of-a-kind bag uses woven leather strips spaced perfectly to leave room for WS2812 RGB LED modules to nestle perfectly. Look slike she even posted a tutorial since we last checked! If you don’t recognize her name, you might recognize her company: GeekMomProjects. She’s the person behind EtchABot, a robotic addendum to the diminutive pocket Etch a Sketch which [Debra] sells on Tindie.
Today is the second Tuesday in October — it’s Ada Lovelace day, a worldwide celebration of women in science and technology. The hackers above are some of our all-around favorites and we have featured all of their work frequently. Their impact on technology is undeniable, we give them much respect for their skills and accomplishments. We’d love to hear your own favorite examples of women who have incredible game when it comes to hardware hacking. Please let us know in the comments below.