Super Scientists by Susan Price

Hey, I landed a gig with a 'proper publisher'!

Super Scientists by Susan Price
Rising Star are the publishers and it's one of an extensive series of 'Game Changers' aimed at different reading ages. There are books about game changing entertainers, computer pioneers and 'hidden heroes' or people who did great things but were never given their due.

Initially I was offered a choice between writing about game-changing sports people or scientists. An easy decision for me. Sport has always left me cold but science has always fascinated me.

Writing the book was difficult and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There was a strict word number but Rising Stars wanted eight scientists, which worked out at about 1,500 words each. The brief was: a short introductory account of each subject's early life, followed by a broad account of their main achievements.

This was easier for some than others. As an exercise, try covering Einstein's achievements and life in 1500 words, while being readable and comprehensible at the same time. (And people thinking 'writing for kids' is easy.)

The Super Scientists are:

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton, 1643 - 1727
Of course. How could you not include Newton? When it comes to science, he wrote the book: Philsophia Naturalis Principia Mathmatica, it's called.

     He is credited with inventing the cat-flap. And calculus, which he invented so he could figure out the orbit of the planets and the extent of gravity's pull. He inserted a bodkin (a flat, blunt needle) between his eye-ball and eye-socket and pressed on  it to alter the shape of his eye-ball and see what effect that had on his vision. He was -- odd. But maybe that's what made him such an amazing scientist.
     He was an alchemist, which was a quite sensible thing to be at the time and his alchemical research indicated that the world will end in 2060.
     Forty years to go. Looking around at the world today, I feel that, in this, as in so many other things, Newton was right on the money. 

It was during Newton's lifetime that the Royal Institute was founded, to further research in science and adopted as its motto; 'Nullius in verba.' (Take no one's word for it.) This struck me as such sound advice that I adopted it as the motto of the book.

Caroline Herschel, 1750 - 1848
Caroline Herschel
The first professional woman astronomer. (King George III paid her to 'sweep the sky.') I became very fond of Caroline, who moved from being an uneducated skivvy in her mother's house to an accomplished mathematician.
     She came from a remarkable family of German musicians (who didn't believe in educating daughters.) Her brother, William Herschel, was twelve years her senior and worked in Bath, England, as a musician and shipped Caroline over to act as his housekeeper. It was he who taught Caroline mathmatics with his handwritten 'Little Lessons for 'Lina'. Big brother William didn't seem to have the same objection to educating girls as his parents and taught her music too. Offered the chance of education, Caroline seems to have soaked it all up like a sponge.
      Conceiving a passion for astronomy, William didn't so much 'discover' Uranus as figure out that it wasn't a comet (as everyone else said) but a planet. It's been said that Caroline was merely 'her brother's assistant' and she certainly did assist him -- she also came up with a new way of describing the position of stars, was the first to discover many astronomical features and produced a couple of detailed star catalogues. The'star catalogues' used by astronomers today are still based substantially on her work. I think that qualifies her as more than 'an assistant.'

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, 1809 - 1882
Charles Darwin changed the way the human race thinks about itself.
     I had to leave out quite a bit about him because there just wasn't room. I would have liked to include his friendship with an ex-slave, John Edmonstone, who taught Darwin taxidermy in Edinburgh. (Darwin was supposed to be studying medicine but, being far more interested in Natural History and collecting specimens, wanted to learn how to preserve them in lifelike poses.) He mentions Edmonstone in his letters home and says he is 'a very intelligent man.'*
     Edmonstone was able to tell Darwin about the rain-forests of Guyana and that made Darwin mad to see a rain-forest. He got his chance when Captain Fitzroy wanted 'a gentleman companion' who was also able to make notes on natural history to accompany him on board his ship, the Beagle. The story of Fitzroy's shocking temper and Darwin's quarrels with him also had to be left out in favour of an explanation of Natural Selection.
*It should be said that some authorities point out that Darwin does not give Edmonstone's name in his letters to his family and therefore it cannot be said with certainty that Edmonstone was his taxidermy teacher. Of course not! In 1826, in Edinburgh, you just couldn't move for freed slaves who'd spent time in the rain-forests of Guyana and were expert in taxidermy, so it's very probable that Darwin actually met one of the other Guyana travelled ex-slave taxidermists resident in Edinburgh in 1826. (FGS.)

Marie Curie, 1867 - 1934
Marie Curie

For me, Marie Curie was one of those people that you've always heard of but don't actually know much about, so researching her life was a pleasure. She wasn't allowed to study beyond the age of 16 (because she was female and females weren't, in Poland at that time. Nor in most other countries, it has to be said.)
     The Russians, who ruled Poland, discouraged education as a way of keeping the Poles down. With her older sister, Bronislawa, who wanted to be a doctor, Marie joined the 'flying university' an illegal, secret university that 'flew' from one private home to another to avoid detection. Later both sisters travelled to Paris to continue their studies.
     Marie's meeting with and marriage to Pierre Curie has to be the greatest love story in science. (I don't know of any others.) Curie was an unusual man for his time,  seeming to have no trouble accepting the fact that Marie was his equal and, possibly, the better scientist. When she refused his proposal because she wanted to return Poland and work there, he was prepared to give up his own work and follow her. It didn't come to that because, on holiday in Poland, she discovered that Krakov University wouldn't admit her, on account of her being the wrong sex. She returned to Paris, married Pierre, and the rest is scientific history.
      After their marriage, Marie continued to work and research, with Pierre's full support, even after their daughters were born. For their time and place, this was very unusual.
     Pierre joined Marie in her work into radioactivity, but the idea was hers and she led. When they announced their discoveries, The Royal Institute of London invited them to lecture about it -- but only Pierre was allowed to speak because the Royal Institute building would crack from attics to foundations and fall down if a woman spoke in it. Or something.
     When they were awarded the Nobel prize, only Pierre was nominated initially. He complained. Marie had begun the work and in the latter stages they had shared it equally, so why, he asked, was she not mentioned? This ensured that the Nobel went to both the Curies and Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel. (Although, with no disrespect at all to Madame Curie, possibly not the first woman who deserved a Nobel.) Later, after Pierre's death, she continued her research and isolated radium in its pure form. For this she won a second Nobel, becoming the only person to win a Nobel in two different scientific fields (physics and chemistry.)
     Curie was killed by the radioactivity she researched. She often carried lumps of it around in her pockets without any protection and it was almost certainly the cause of the rare blood disease that killed her. (Pierre Curie actually died in a road-traffic accident -- he was knocked down by a horse-drawn cart and a cart-wheel passed over his head. However, accounts of him at this time indicate that he too was almost certainly suffering from radiation sickness. And possibly fell under the cart because he was sick. In which case, radiation killed them both.)
     I couldn't resist including in the book the fact that Marie Curie's cook book is still so radioactive that it has to be kept in a lead-lined box and researchers have to wear protective clothing to read it. An idea for a new cookery contest show? Beat the geiger counter?

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein, 1879 - 1955
Albert's section was, as you might expect, one of the hardest to write. In 1,500 words, remember.
     Damn the man, in one year, 1915, he published four ground-breaking papers while still working as a patent-office clerk. There was no way I could cover everything he did.
     Indeed, at one point my editors despaired and said, let's drop Einstein and put in someone else. His theories are just too difficult. (They were struggling with them themselves.)
     I disagreed. A book of game-changing scientists without Albert Einstein? That would just be daft.
     So I suggested we take another approach and my editors liked the idea. So Albert stayed, but with the following admonition:

 Einstein's ideas are very hard to understand. Your brain will ache.

     I go on to say that when Einstein's papers on relativity were published even scientists found them hard to understand and many people today still balk at them. I reasoned that this gave young readers a face-saving get-out clause. If they couldn't understand the chapter -- well, no wonder, because Einstein's ideas give even the brightest people trouble. And if they did understand even a little, then they could feel proud of themselves.
     Relativity always gives me a buzz, even though I understand almost nothing about it. The Einstein quote I chose to head the chapter (each chapter has a quote) was:
'The physical world is real.' -- This statement appears to me to be, in itself, meaningless, as if one said, 'The physical world is cock-a-doodle-do.'
As a teenager I delighted in the thought that the solid world about me could melt, thaw and resolve itself relative to that untouchable, apparently fragile but oh so powerful thing; light. That pretty  sunlight was, in fact, electromagnetism, one of the most powerful forces that shapes the universe. A force so powerful that it not only gives you sunburn but warps time and space so that if you could reach light-speed (which you can't, but if you could) time would stop and the craft in which you travelled would expand until it passed through every part of the universe simultaneously.

Tu Youyou, 1930 -
Tu Youyou
I had never, to my shame, even heard of Tu Youyou but this modest woman has arguably saved more lives than anyone, ever. She used her knowledge of Western science and ancient Chinese medicine to find a more effective cure for malaria than the quinine that's been used for nearly 400 years.
     Her discovery was that the abundant wild plant artemisia had been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine against 'intermittent fevers' which are a major symptom of malaria. Oddly, in an almost prophetic touch, her father invented the name 'Youyou' for her by adapting a line of poetry which translates as something like, 'the bleating of deer as they eat wild artemisia.' (Tu is her family name.)
     After years of patient research into the ancient manuscripts that detail traditional Chinese medicine, together with much experimentation and testing, Tu and her team developed the drug now known in the West as artemisinin from the plant artemisia.
     Tu tested the drug on herself because, she believed that since she had developed it, she was responsible for its effects on other people. Therefore, she should be one of the guinea pigs. If only our politicians has a similiar sense of responsibility.
     The drug has proved safe and effective. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now term it 'an essential medicine.' It's suspected that it may also be effective against cancer.
      The drug was developed in the 1950s under Mao, and I had to skip lightly over the politics in a book aimed at young readers. It wasn't until the end of the 1990s that WHO scientists found out that Tu had led the team of Chinese scientists who had discovered artemisinin. (She was almost unknown in China as well.)
     In 2015, at the age of 84, Tu was given the Nobel prize for medicine. She was the first Chinese person to win it for that discipline and the first Chinese woman to ever win a Nobel.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking, 1942 - 2018

With Stephen Hawking, as with Einstein, I got to contemplate, again, the kind of mind-twisting ideas that interested me in science to begin with. Ideas such as: 

     Has the universe always existed, for an infinity of time, or did it begin at some point? If so, when?

     If it began at a certain point, what was there before it?

     And if the universe began at some point in time and filled up a certain amount of space with its mass, where did that mass end and what was there outside it?

I remember getting my brain tied up in tight knots at the age of about 13, as I tried to grasp these ideas and their implications. I hope this book will pass on some of  this mental torture to today's youngsters. (In fact, I have already given a copy to a young friend, in a bid to melt his brain.)

In the early 1960s, when Hawking was studying at Cambridge and coping with a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, there was a great argument going on in physics between those who believed that the universe had always existed and always would (the 'Steady State' theorists) and those who believed that the universe was expanding and, therefore it must, at some time in the past, have been smaller. 

Hubble had described the 'red shift' of distant galaxies, which meant they were moving away from us. The red shift is like the Doppler effect in sound applied to light. Light waves approaching us reach us more quickly and more often, that is, with higher frequency. They appear blue. Light waves moving away from us reach us less often and more slowly, with lower frequency, and appear red.

No matter into what part of the sky astronomers looked, the light reaching us from galaxies was in the red end of the spectrum, which meant the galaxies were moving away. This supported the idea that the universe was expanding, that the mass it contained was exploding from some central, much smaller and denser point. The universe, they suggested, may have begun with this explosion. Steady Staters described this idea, mockingly, as 'The Big Bang Theory.'

Okay, said the Big Bangers. If the universe has always existed in the same steady state, how do you explain the red shift?

Easy, said the Steady Staters. There was a 'creation field' between stars where new matter was constantly being created. It was this that pushed stars further away and caused the red shift. But the universe had always existed. It had never been shrunk down to a single point. It had never gone 'Bang!'

At the age of 26, in his doctoral thesis, Properties of Expanding Universes, Hawking proved mathematically that the 'creation field' theory was wrong and that Einstein's theory of general relativity was compatible with a universe that shrank and expanded. He argued that the shrinking of the universe to a small, unimaginably dense point -- a singularity (aka a black hole) -- was a predictable part of the universe's structure.

That was pretty much the end of the Steady State theory and, as so often, a name given in mockery became the accepted term: The Big Bang Theory. (Hawking has appeared in the comedy series of the same name. And also, in cartoon form, in The Simpsons.)

I also learned that Hawking was feared for his reckless mobility-scooter driving, which is reflected in this video. (Be patient with the advert.)

 In his later years, Hawking led work on 'String Theory' with the aim of linking relativity and quantum theory. Relativity deals with the unimaginably huge: galaxies, spacetime, the speed of light; while quantum theory deals with the unimaginably tiny: sub-atomic particles. They had always been regarded as separate disciplines but since they exist in the same universe, it follows that, somehow, they are linked. If they could be brought together to form 'a theory of everything,' said Hawking, 'then we would truly know the mind of God.'

Hawking died in 2018. In the same year, for the first time, scientists 'observed' a black hole swallowing a star by monitoring the blasts of energy released as the star was destroyed. Black holes ceased to be merely theory.

Mae Jemison, 1956 -
Mae Jemison
I have to admit that I'd never heard of Mae Jemison either but once I had heard of her, she had to be in the book.
     As a child, she was inspired by Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura to study science and think about space travel. But she also trained as a dancer and, for a time, worked as one.
     At the age of 16, she left home to study chemical engineering at Stanford, an unusual choice for a woman (well, girl) then. And she encountered prejudice, though whether it was against her age, her colour, her sex or all three would be hard to figure out. She said:
"Some professors would just pretend I was not there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, 'That's a very astute observation.'"
Nevertheless, she gained a degree in chemical engineering and went on to gain another in medicine. She gained her medical degree in 1981 and spent time working overseas with the Peace Corps. In 1983, she successfully applied to NASA and spent five years working in the control room. She was there in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after take-off, killing everyone on board. It didn't put her off.

In 1992, she went into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour and worked in the European designed space-lab, studying two of the things which most affect the human body in space: weightlessness and motion-sickness. Weightlessness damages bone and muscle density and is also the cause of motion-sickness, as the body tumbles about. As with sea-sickness, the nausea can be severe enough to put a sufferer out of action.

Since leaving NASA, Jemison has founded the Jemison Group which aims to produce technology to solve such problems as how to cheaply connect remote communities with health care, and affordable ways of generating power from solar energy.

She also started an international science camp called, The Earth We Share, which aims to introduce young people to science and to make them aware of the problems we face. Jemison has also said:
"We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That's just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation.'
Oh, and Jemison is the only real space-traveller to have appeared in Star Trek.

   Game Changers: Super Scientists

   Find out more about Susan Price at her website


Jan Needle said…
Good on yer, gal!
Sandra Horn said…
Great! And what a super selection!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Susan, what an amazing group of brilliant minds!

To my shame, I had not heard of Tu Youyou either, however, now I shall not forget it! Her name is delightful too!

Certainly in these difficult times, the cream of the crop of scientists rise to the top. They're the ones who can guide us through. I put my belief in them ahead of the the politicians and other 'leaders' who don't believe in science.

Stay well,

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