Glowing praise for those who would have celebrated a birthday

Well, you probably missed it. John Bardeen died in 1991, but I couldn’t find the event listed on any of the calendars on the Internet. I suppose that is because he was born clear back in 1908. Pretty hopelessly old-fashioned. Except that John Bardeen invented the transistor and proposed the theory of superconductivity. No big deal.

I decided to check the Internet to see what kind of famous people were born on Nov. 7. It was really amazing. I had to go clear back to 1915 to find a scientist — Phillip Morrison. He was a physicist who helped with the development of the atomic bomb. Later he came out against nuclear weapons.  It’s too bad he didn’t think about that first. 

I was chagrined that I wasn’t on the list of people born on Nov. 7. But I guess that’s because I wasn’t born on that day. Everyone else on the list was either an actor, athlete, musician, writer or the occasional politician. I hadn’t heard of most of them. I’m thinking scientists might need a PR department. It was gratifying to see that I didn’t appear on the death-date list either. 

Generally, real scientists aren’t very well known. I don’t know if that is because of the long lag time between their accomplishments and the effects they have on society, or because they are all just terribly modest. I’m pretty sure it’s because of the long lag time. 

William Herschel is better known than most scientists even though he was a musician. He discovered the favorite planet of every middle school boy; Uranus. What made that discovery possible was a 7-foot telescope that Hershel designed and built, with the help of his sister, Caroline, in their backyard. Herschel’s design used mirrors to magnify the images, as proposed by Isaac Newton. This model later became the standard model for nearly all modern telescopes. 

So the German composer, Herschel, and his singing sister designed, cast and built the mother of all space telescopes with their bare hands. They did it in their free time, basically, just because they wanted to. Remember that when you don’t think you have enough time for something important after watching on the average of between 2.8 hours a day and up to 38 hours per week of television. 

However, another scientist no one has ever heard of is M. Salomea Sktodowska. It’s not that she was some run-of-the-mill scientist either. Much of our modern world is what it is because of her discoveries. Of course, the public relations folks had a hard time making Sktodowska a household name, so, typically, she became better known by an assumed name: Marie Curie. Pierre Curie was her husband, scientific collaborator and the father of their two children. 

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her work on radiation and the discovery of both radium and polonium. She was also the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields. Only four people have received the Nobel Prize twice. One of those won a science and a peace prize, and the other two won prizes in the same field. 

I have never received a Nobel Prize for anything. Once I won a free electric bow tie that glowed in the dark. You have to love things that glow in the dark — especially books. Especially if the subject of the book is Radiation and Marie Curie. “Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss actually glows in the dark. It was published in 2010, and I bought books for two of my granddaughters last year for Christmas. The reason it is back on my mind is that Marie Curie was born on Nov. 7, 1867. Hey, Thursday would have been her birthday!

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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