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: Professor Lise Meitner, Nuclear Physicist

Lise Meitner

Professor Lise Meitner

Professor Elise ‘Lise’ Meitner was a physicist who discovered the element protactinium and developed a theory of nuclear fission.

Lise Meitner was born in 1878. Fascinated by science and mathematics from an early age, her educational opportunities were severely limited because of her sex, and she had to take private lessons so that she could sit her exams. In 1905, she became only the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna.

After initially studying optics, she moved on to radioactivity which was, at that point, a new field of study. She discovered that when a beam of alpha particles was fired at metal foil, its scattering would increase with the increased atomic mass of the metal atoms. Ernest Rutherford used the results of this experiment to then predict the nuclear atom.

Meitner was unusual in being allowed to attend Max Planck’s lectures, as Planck generally rejected the idea that women should be allowed to get an education but he recognised her as an exception. At this time, she was introduced to Otto Hahn, a chemist, with whom she began a lifelong collaboration. They developed a new way to detect isotopes and tests soon resulted in the discovery of two new isotopes. Meitner then began studying beta radiation.

Hahn and Meitner moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chemistry, in 1912, where he became a professor whilst her position was as an unpaid ‘guest’. But later that year Plank employed her as an assistant, making her the first female scientific assistant in Prussia. She soon got promotion to associate, though, and later an increased salary to persuade her not to move to Prague.

With the outbreak of World War I, Meitner trained and then worked as an x-ray nurse-technician. She was discharged in 1916.

The next year, she was given her own lab at KWI, where she started to search for the ‘mother isotope’ of actinium. As the men at the institute had been called up, she did much of the work herself and discovered the first long-lived isotope of protactinium, for which she was awarded the Leibniz Medal.

At the beginning of World War II, when Austria was annexed by Germany, Meitner fled to Sweden. She and Hahn met in Copenhagen to discuss experiments that Hahn had conducted in his lab in Berlin. One key experiment showed that when uranium was bombarded with neutrons, it split into two, and one of the resulting elements, thought to be radium, behaved like barium.

Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, who was also a physicist, discussed the data and Meitner theorised that the uranium broke into barium (and krypton). If the element was barium, then this would be evidence of fission, but if it were radium, it could not be fission because radium was too big. But there was no theory for how uranium could decay into barium. The two of them worked out how this decay could occur, developing the theory of nuclear fission.

Meitner and Frisch came up with an experiment which would test this theory and asked Hahn to examine the byproducts of uranium bombardment in more detail. Hahn confirmed that it was indeed barium, not radium, proving Meitner’s theory of nuclear fission. It was clear that fission could produce large amounts of energy, and whilst this resulted in the Manhattan Project in the US, Meitner refused to have anything to do with research that might lead to the development of a bomb.

In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his fission research, but Meitner’s work was ignored. She did, however, receive the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966 along with Hahn and his colleague Fritz Strassmann.

In 1992, element 109, which is currently the heaviest element in the known universe, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honour, one of just two elements named after women (the other, curium, was named after Marie Curie).

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Kateryna Yushchenko, Computer Scientist

Kateryna Yushchenko

Dr Kateryna Yushchenko

Kateryna Yushchenko, Катерина Ющенко, was a Ukrainian computer scientist who developed the Address programming language, one of the world’s first high-level languages.

Yushchenko was born in 1919, in Chyhyryn in central Ukraine. In 1937, her father was arrested as a Ukrainian nationalist (he later died in a gulag) and when her mother tried to prove his innocence she was arrested and imprisoned for ten years. Yushchenko had just started studying at Kyiv University, but was expelled as a “daughter of enemies of the people”. The only institution that would accept her on a full state scholarship was Samarkand University in Uzbekistan.

Moving back to Ukraine after WW2, she was awarded her PhD in 1950 by the Kyiv Institute of Mathematics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, the first woman in the USSR to get a PhD in physical and mathematical sciences in programming. She was a senior researcher for seven years, at which point she was appointed director of the Institute of Computer Science.

Two years later, the Institute bought the first MESM, or Small Electronic Calculating Machine, which was the first universally programmable computer in continental Europe, and Yushchenko was appointed head of the MESM laboratory. She realised that complex tasks could not be completed by the MESM, which had little memory and was very slow, without a high-level programming language, but that required a way for humans to program in that language.

To solve this problem, Yushchenko developed the Address programming language, which referred to memory cell addresses rather than numbers, several years before Fortran, COBOL or ALGOL. The Address programming language was used in most Soviet computers, including those that controlled the Apollo-Soyuz international space mission in 1975.

Yushchenko also worked on probability theory, algorithmic languages and programming languages, as well as developing automated data processing systems. She wrote a series of programming textbooks in the 1970s, including Elements of Programming, which was used across the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries.

Further Reading

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