ALD22: Dr Valerie Thomas, Inventor and NASA Scientist

Valerie Thomas

Dr Valerie Thomas

Dr Valerie Thomas, born in 1943, is an African American inventor and NASA scientist, famous for her ‘illusion transmitter’ and work as a computer scientist at NASA. She received many awards for her work and her activism, including an Award of Merit from the Goddard Space Flight Center and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal.

While technology was an interest of hers as a child, she received little encouragement to pursue this or other science fields. This changed when she went to Morgan State University, where she majored in physics, one of only two women to do so.

After finishing her degree, she began to work on data analysis at NASA as a mathematician and taught herself how to use Fortran. She began her career working on real-time computer data systems that were used in satellite operations control centres.

During the 1970s, she worked on Landsat, becoming team leader for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment, an ambitious project which used satellites to predict worldwide wheat yield. She was also responsible for the development of the image processing system.

In 1976, Thomas was at an exhibition where she saw an illusion of a lightbulb that was shining, despite having been removed from its socket. She began designing an optical device that used concave mirrors to create such illusions and in 1980, she patented her illusion transmitter. The design is still in use at NASA and has also become more widely used in other fields such as surgery and 3D video.

Thomas became the Computer Facility manager at the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA, and was responsible for reorganising and updating the facility. She then did the same at the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN), growing the number of computer nodes from 100 to 2,700 worldwide with the aim of improving scientific collaboration. Whilst at SPAN, Thomas worked on projects studying the ozone layer, Halley’s Comet and Voyager.

Outside of her scientific work, Valerie is an enthusiastic supporter of young people, especially girls interested in STEM. She was a mentor for the National Technical Association (NTA), Goddard Space Flight Center and Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology, Inc (S.M.A.R.T).

She retired from NASA in 1995, but continues with her mentorship activities, inspiring the next generation.

Further Reading

ALD22 Books: Geopedia, Prof Marcia Bjornerud

Geopedia: A Brief Compendium of Geologic Curiosities, Prof Marcia Bjornerud

Geopedia is a trove of geologic wonders and the evocative terms that humans have devised to describe them. Featuring dozens of entries – from Acasta gneiss to Zircon – this illustrated compendium is brimming with lapidary and lexical insights that will delight rockhounds and word lovers alike. Geoscientists are magpies for words, and with good reason. The sheer profusion of minerals, landforms, and geologic events produced by our creative planet demands an immense vocabulary to match. Marcia Bjornerud shows how this lexicon reflects not only the diversity of rocks and geologic processes but also the long history of human interactions with them. 

With wit and warmth, she invites all readers to celebrate the geologic glossary – a gallimaufry of allusions to mythology, imports from diverse languages, embarrassing anachronisms, and recent neologisms. This captivating book includes cross-references at the end of each entry, inviting you to leave the alphabetic trail and meander through it like a river. Geopedia is a mix of engaging and entertaining facts about how the earth works, how it has coevolved with life over billions of years, and how our understanding of the planet has deepened over time.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Marcia Bjornerud is Professor of Geosciences and Environmental Studies at Lawrence University, a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and has been a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Oslo and University of Otago. A contributing writer to The New YorkerWired, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, she is also the author of several books for popular audiences – Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. Timefulness was longlisted for the 2019 PEN/E.O.Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Science and Technology.

You can follow her work here:


ALD22 Books: Sticky, Laurie Winkless

Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces, Laurie Winkless

You are surrounded by stickiness. With every step you take, air molecules cling to you and slow you down; the effect is harder to ignore in water. When you hit the road, whether powered by pedal or engine, you rely on grip to keep you safe. The Post-it note and glue in your desk drawer. The non-stick pan on your stove. The fingerprints linked to your identity. The rumbling of the Earth deep beneath your feet, and the ice that transforms waterways each winter. All of these things are controlled by tiny forces that operate on and between surfaces, with friction playing the leading role.

In Sticky, Laurie Winkless explores some of the ways that friction shapes both the manufactured and natural worlds, and describes how our understanding of surface science has given us an ability to manipulate stickiness, down to the level of a single atom. But this apparent success doesn’t tell the whole story. Each time humanity has pushed the boundaries of science and engineering, we’ve discovered that friction still has a few surprises up its sleeve.

So do we really understand this force? Can we say with certainty that we know how a gecko climbs, what’s behind our sense of touch, or why golf balls, boats and aircraft move as they do? Join Laurie as she seeks out the answers from experts scattered across the globe, uncovering a stack of scientific mysteries along the way.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Laurie Winkless is an Irish physicist-turned-science-writer, currently based in New Zealand. After her post-grad, she joined the UK’s National Physical Laboratory as a research scientist, where she specialised in functional materials. She is an experienced science communicator, who loves talking about science in all forms of media. Since leaving the lab, Laurie has worked with scientific organisations, engineering companies, universities, and astronauts, amongst others. Her writing has featured in outlets including Forbes, Wired, Esquire, and The Economist, and her first book, Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis, was published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2016.  

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @laurie_winkless

ALD22: Professor Neena Gupta, Mathematician

Neena Gupta

Professor Neena Gupta

Neena Gupta, born in India in 1984, is a mathematician specialising in commutative algebra and affine algebraic geometry. She is based at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).

Gupta used to spend hours doing maths as a young girl and loved solving mathematical problems. She was initially taught by her mother before going to school and then college, graduating in Mathematics. She eventually received a PhD in algebraic geometry and then became a visiting scientist at the ISI. She took up a short fellowship at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and then won an assistant professorship position from the Indian Department of Science and Technology, allowing her to return to the ISI. She is now an associate professor at the Theoretical Statistics and Mathematics Unit at ISI.

In 2014, Gupta solved the Zariski Cancellation Problem originally posed in 1949 by Oscar Zariski, who was a highly influential mathematician in algebraic geometry. The Zariski Cancellation Problem is considered to be one of the most difficult problems in maths, and was a topic that Gupta ruminated on while she was completing her PhD. She describes the problem thus: “The cancellation problem asks that if you have cylinders over two geometric structures, and that have similar forms, can one conclude that the original base structures have similar forms?”. For completing this problem, she was awarded the Young Scientists Award, with the Indian National Science Academy considering her work the best research they had seen in algebraic geometry in some time. 

Gupta has also won other awards for her work. She won the Saraswathi Cowsik Medal (2013), the Swarnajayanti Fellowship (2014), the A.K. Agarwal Award (2015), and the Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries (2021). She was also the youngest recipient of the highly coveted Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prize in 2019, which is awarded by the Prime Minister of India and provides a monthly endowment until age 65. She is still studying Zariski today.

Further Reading

ALD22 Podcasts: Techish, Abadesi Osunsade & Michael Berhane

British tech founders Abadesi Osunsade (Hustle Crew) and Michael Berhane (POCIT) talk about the intersection of tech, pop culture and life. Recent episodes covered: 

  • Drama at Google & Meta all hands meetings
  • Everyone wants Instagram to be Instagram again
  • Finessing remote-work to suit your lifestyle
  • Apple’s new iOS 16 features
  • Sheryl Sandberg steps down as Meta (Facebook) COO

You can: 

Listen: on Apple Podcasts
Follow on Twitter: @techishpod @Abadesi @michaelberhane_
Visit their website: