On October 11th, 2018 we learned about

Curious George’s impressive predictions for primate participation in Project Mercury

It would obviously be absurd to suggest that NASA planned the Mercury space program on H.A. and Margret Rey’s children’s book, Curious George Gets a Medal. In the book, George the suspiciously chimp-like ‘monkey’ is depicted destroying property, stealing farm equipment, and rustling cattle, none of which were really prerequisites for the animals NASA did send into space. Nonetheless, the book does seem to somehow predict a key milestone in Project Mercury, most specifically the successful voyage of the chimpanzee No. 65, or Ham as he was later known.

Before the book

Curious George Gets a Medal was published just a few weeks before the Soviet Union sent a dog named Laika into orbit in 1957. However, animals traveling to space wasn’t a completely novel idea at that point, as the United States and Soviet Union had been sending everything from fruit flies to monkeys into space since 1947. However, an important distinction that Rey somehow predicted years before NASA was the need for the passenger organism to do something during their flight. At the time of the book’s publication, monkeys like Albert I were noted largely for their mortality rates, even though they traveled in restrictive harnesses with no real autonomy inside their V2 rockets.

Some of the similarities between Curious George and Ham could probably be explained by the necessary optimism needed for a kids’ book. It’s not exactly ‘fun’ to see a small simian strapped into a metal tube, so obviously George’s situation needed a bit more levity in the presentation. However, similarly to George’s origins in Africa, Ham was also captured in Cameroon when he was young (having been born in 1957, coincidentally enough). Like George, Ham was also noted for being a good, cooperative little chimpanzee. Just as the fictional monkey behaves a lot like a curious toddler, Ham’s handler remarked that Ham “…performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle. I’d hold him and he was just like a little kid.” Ham probably never destroyed a dinosaur exhibit in a museum, instead using these traits to excel among the other chimps competing to fly in an MR-2 rocket in 1961.

A more demanding mission

One detail omitted from Curious George Gets a Medal was the motivation behind flying a curious monkey in a rocket in the first place. The one clue is that George was not meant to be a passive passenger, as he had to pull a lever in a specific time frame so that he could eject from the rocket before it continued into deeper space. This isn’t explained in much detail, but again, it was very similar to the goals NASA had for Ham on the chimp’s test flight. In 1959 a rhesus monkey named Sam had been allowed to move his arms during his test flight, but before researchers wanted to confirm that an animal could not only survive, but also concentrate and function while in microgravity. To this end, Ham was trained to pull a lever on the dashboard in front of him withing five seconds of seeing an illuminated blue light. Ham did very well, responding to cues only a touch slower than on Earth. The fact that his pressurized spacesuit also performed well when a seal broke further cemented the notion that NASA was ready to launch a human in a rocket, paving the way for Alan Shepard’s historic flight.

As the name of the book implies, Curious George pulled his lever as instructed, and lands on the ground a hero. He is awarded a medal for being the “First Space Monkey,” which obviously missed a few bits of history, but otherwise wasn’t too far off the mark. Up until the flight completed, Ham had been known as No. 65 in order to make his possible death easier for the public to accept. So when the chimp survived the flight, he was essentially awarded a name, based off the acronym of Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. The chimp appeared on television and in documentary films, adding a bit of personality to a space program that had previously had fairly grim results. Ham was suddenly a hero.

Post-rocket retirement

There’s not much of an epilogue to Curious George’s trip in a rocket, but other stories have revisited the idea of the curious monkey going to space, including resupplying some incarnation of the International Space Station. In the biggest divergence from the Curious George books, Ham’s career was basically over once he landed. The chimp lived at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. where he was noted for seeming reserved and lonely in his retirement. Melanie Bond, a trainer at the zoo, found that the chimp seemed to reluctantly enjoy affectionate interactions, like tickling his feet. Later on, she learned that this was likely due to his training for the Project Mercury, wherein his feet were given electric shocks as a form of negative reinforcement for unwanted behaviors (something the Man with the Yellow Hat has obviously never considered). This need for control highlights an element of Ham’s experience that’s perhaps a bit too dark for a children’s book-— Ham wasn’t exactly a volunteer in his mission, and films of his flight suggest that it was a survivable but frightening experience for the chimp.

In 1980, Ham was transferred to the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro where he could live with other chimps with a bit more autonomy. He was only able to enjoy this final adventure for a few years though, dying in 1983 at the relatively young age of 25 years old. Instead of being fully taxidermied and displayed in a museum, Ham’s bones are currently preserved in a drawer at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine. It’s not exactly a grand tribute, but perhaps H.A. and Margaret Rey’s unintentionally prognosticative kids’ book is doing a better job of keeping Ham’s accomplishments in our memory today.

Source: Heroes of Space: Ham the chimpanzee by Gemma Lavender, Space Answers

On March 7th, 2018 we learned about

Edith Clarke’s pioneering career at the intersection of computation and electrical engineering

When Edith Clarke was growing up, women weren’t electrical engineers. Then again, there weren’t many women earning college degrees in the early 20th century either, but that didn’t stop the orphan from Maryland from using her saved inheritance to attend Vassar College. Vassar didn’t offer a degree in engineering, so Clarke instead earned a degree in astronomy and mathematics in 1908. Even after enrolling in a civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin in 1911, Clarke’s path shifted again thanks to an engrossing job with AT&T as a “computer,” where she used here math skills to calculate probability functions. It wasn’t until World War I that Clarke would finally begin formal studies of electrical engineering, first at Columbia University then finishing at MIT in 1919.

Streamlining complex calculations

Clarke’s master’s degree from MIT wasn’t only a milestone for her, but it was the first electrical engineering degree earned by a woman at that school. Still, when she was hired to work for General Electric in that same year, it wasn’t as a salaried electrical engineer, as she was again employed for her math skills as a human computer. While computing was seen as more ‘appropriate’ for women at the time, she proved that it shouldn’t be considered a lesser station. By leveraging her understanding of both math and engineering, Clarke invented the Clarke Calculator, a device that changed how electrical engineering was conducted for men and women alike.

As the world became increasingly electrified, Clarke recognized that long-distance transmission lines were much more complicated than the shorter power lines most engineers were trained on at the time. The Clarke Calculator,  resembling a tablet covered in grids, arcs and two pivoting rulers, enabled engineers to more easily calculate the performance of long-distance electrical transmission lines. By streamlining this kind of analysis, engineers could solve their hyperbolic equations in a tenth of the time it would take to do by hand while also having fewer opportunities to introduce costly errors. Clarke filed a patent for her device in 1921, although it wasn’t formally granted until 1925.

Clarke’s ingenuity didn’t go unnoticed. In 1922, she was finally recognized as a salaried electrical engineer at General Electric. In 1926, she was the first woman to present a research paper for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, a precursor to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). She not only went on to become a voting member of that organization, but also a fellow in 1948. Clarke retired from here position at General Electric in 1947, but almost immediately left retirement to go back to work as the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

Pragmatic politics

In 1954, five years before her death, Clarke was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers. When asked about her career, Clarke clearly understood the importance of the doors she opened, and wanted female engineers in the future to face fewer barriers than she had to overcome. Her work during the World Wars seems to have shaped her arguments on these matters, approaching it from a somewhat utilitarian point of view. The New York Times reported her belief that “women may help solve today’s critical need for technical manpower.” Clarke’s most famous quote took a similar tact, claiming that people shouldn’t worry about women’s sex, instead focusing on the fact that “there’s always demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work.

Source: Edith Clarke (1883-1959) by Amy Hobbs, Maryland State Archives

On April 3rd, 2016 we learned about

Francesca Caccini’s life as a sixteenth century (female) composer

“What about your girls?” asks Elizabeth, the young pianist in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, “Didn’t you write any music for them?”

The spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has been happily sharing his life story, has to sheepishly explain to his young audience, “Well, Elizabeth, you see in those days, girls were different…” Of course, it would have been much more accurate to say that the way society treated girls was different, especially, in Bach’s case, since his life was actually strikingly similar to one of the Baroque period’s premiere female composers, Francesca Caccini. While Caccini’s music hasn’t been preserved and celebrated as much as Bach’s, she had a long and at times monumental career in her own right.

Born into music

Caccini’s early years aren’t well documented, most likely because most women’s lives weren’t expected to be of historical significance, as the aforementioned spirit of Bach eluded to. Like Bach, Caccini had a musical family, her father being a composer and her mother being a singer. Born in 1587, she appears to have been well educated, and was trained as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and harpist. Her first performances as a singer were with her younger sister and her stepmother Margherita, who was also a singer.

A composer’s career path in the early 17th century generally revolved around finding a patron to fund ongoing composing, singing and teaching. Caccini started working as part of her father’s ensemble with the Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, but was eventually recruited to work for the de’ Medici family. That patronage bestowed a salary and, in a deviation from the experiences of her male counterparts, a dowry, allowing her to marry the singer Giovanni Signorini.

A most inspiring opera

Unfortunately, only one major opera by Caccini has survived the last 500 years, but it was an important piece. La Liberazione di Ruggiero was the first published opera written by a woman, and it was thoroughly appreciated in its own time. The comic opera involving magic and dragons was performed for the visiting Prince Władysław of Poland, who reportedly loved it enough to build a new opera house back home, inviting Caccini to write new music for its opening performances.

Arts to aristocracy

Unlike Bach, Caccini’s relationship with music waned slightly over time. Her daughter with her first husband became a singer, but her mother didn’t want her appearing on stage. After her husband died, she remarried, but to an aristocrat rather than another musician. The family relocated to Lucca, where Caccini had a son. She continued to compose music even after her husband died left her with a comfortable inheritance. However, requests for her daughter to perform on stage were repeatedly denied, as Caccini did not want to risk the family’s reputation with such appearances.

In the end, Caccini slipped out of any remaining limelight. While her life was clearly dominated by writing and teaching music, unlike Bach her death wasn’t directly recorded, much less publicly mourned. We are left to fill in the gaps, with her death likely being correlated to her son becoming the ward of her brother-in-law in 1645, four years after retiring from the de Medici court.

Source: Francesca Caccini, Music Academy Online

On December 23rd, 2015 we learned about

The farmer who found and photographed the shapes of snow

The person who sparked the idea that “no two snowflakes are alike” was not a trained meteorologist or physicist, but a farmer. This doesn’t mean that Wilson Alwyn Bentley wasn’t a researcher, as much of his life was spent studying and carefully documenting the nature of snow crystals, plus hypothesizing about what influenced their size and shape. His work was eventually reviewed and published, not only providing insight into how snow works, but also showing that a degree isn’t strictly necessary to work as a scientist.

At age 15, Bentley’s father gave him a microscope, which he used to view snowflakes in his native Vermont. He sketched what he could, but in 1885 his father bought him a camera, enabling the twenty-year-old to take the world’s first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. This required some technical invention on Bentley’s part, using a variety of tools from pre-cooled slides to turkey feathers to maneuver the delicate snowflakes into position for a photo. Over the years, Bentley refined his technique, even going as far as altering the contrast of images by hand after they were exposed.

Aside from mastering photographic techniques, Bentley also made some analysis based on his observations. He found connections between ambient temperatures and the shape of the ice crystal. These findings were eventually confirmed and published, but not for 30 years after Bentley’s initial work.

Further work and recognition

In the mean time, Bentley did find some notoriety for his photos. They were published in various magazines and newspapers, and earned the farmer the nickname “Snowflake Bentley.” During the summers, he also turned his attention to other meteorological phenomena, namely rain. As with the snow, Bentley found that raindrop size was also influenced by the air’s temperature, as well as the altitude of the storm clouds.

Bentley continued photographing snow until he died in 1931. While his work grew more sophisticated, he always used the same camera he started with as a young man.

Source: Keith Heidorn by The Snowflake Man of Vermont, Public Domain Review

On April 27th, 2015 we learned about

A career spanning puppy teeth to panther fangs

Peter Emily started his unusual career decades ago looking at x-rays of puppy teeth. He had studied human dentistry in the Air Force, but eventually found himself at the forefront of veterinary tooth care. Zoos, circuses and nature preserves wanted his help, letting him now, at age 82, being able to claim that he’s operated on “everything with a mouth.”

A key to Emily’s prominence in this field was was the extra care and effort he put into his work. Early in his career, he was asked by the Denver zoo to help a hyena with a fractured tooth. At this time in the 1970s, veterinary dentistry only had cleaning or removal as possible prescriptions. Emily went the extra mile, creating his own tools appropriate for this special patient, and then performing a root canal instead of just a basic extraction.

Over the years, he’s expanded his scope, even helping animals without teeth, such as when he dabbled as an avian orthodontist, realigning an owl’s beak. He’s written textbooks, advised on products, and in 2005 started the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation. The Foundation helps fund the care of animals around the word, with lots of contact with sanctuaries like the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado.

My kindergartner asked: Does he work on regular house cats? It wasn’t explicitly stated, and while animals as small as black-footed ferrets were fitted with a gold tooth, I’m assuming that a regular vet would probably handle animals so commonly in need of care.


Source: The Lion Dentist by Alex Halperin, The New Yorker