You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘scientist’ tag.

francium

Francium is a naturally occurring element–a highly radioactive alkali metal with one valence electron. At any given moment there is 20-30 grams of Francium (about an ounce) present on Earth. This tiny sample is found in the form of individual atoms located within uranium and thorium ores around the Earth’s crust.   The half-life of the longest-lived isotope of francium is only 22 minutes. The weird transient metal continuously vanishes (decaying into astatine, radium, or radon)–only to be continuously replaced when actinium-227 decays into francium-223.

Marguerite_Perey

Marguerite Catherine Perey (19 October 1909 – 13 May 1975), French physicist

How did we ever even find out about this stuff if it only exists as 20 grams of individual atoms scattered around the entire world like evanescent Easter eggs? I’m glad you asked! It was discovered by a French woman in 1939. Marguerite Catherine Perey (1909 – 1975) was born in 1909 in Villemomble, France (just outside Paris)–where Marie Curie’s Radium Institute also happened to be located. Perey aspired to be a medical doctor, but her family fell into financial difficulty so, at the age of 19, she took a job at a local spot–working directly for Marie Curie. Curie died of exotic cancer in 1934, but Perey kept up her mentor’s work purifying and studying actinium and looking for a theorized “eka-caesium” (a heretofore unknown alkali metal with an atomic number of 87). Through her methodic and painstaking work and observations, Perey discovered it just as World War II. broke out. Francium was the last element discovered in nature. The rest have been synthesized in labs.

07francium2-master675-v2

Marguerite Perey (second from left) at the Curie laboratory in 1930

After discovering an entirely new atom, Perey finally received a grant to pursue her university studies, and she received her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1960 she became an officer of the Legion of Honor. She founded the laboratory which ultimately grew into became the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry in the Center for Nuclear Research and she was the first woman to be elected to the French Académie des Sciences.

Francelogo.jpg

True to her original dream of helping people as a doctor, Perey hoped that francium would help diagnose cancer and make the disease more treatable, but sadly, francium itself was carcinogenic (which is something to remember, if you find an atom of it sitting in some uranium ore). In her late life, Perey developed bone cancer which eventually killed her–a dark fruit of her pioneering research.

I mention francium this week, not because of its name (coincidentally, it is named after the great nation of France), but because of the life of the scientist who discovered it. Marguerite Catherine Perey had to struggle against prejudice and steroetypes, but she was able to overcome them and move to the foremost ranks of scientists and leaders of France. Her research helped that country become a nuclear leader (which it still is) and helped humankind better understand the nature of chemistry and physics.

Shebbear_Devon_gravestone

Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year.  Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset.  We will not see their like again.  All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues.  Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.

Illustration from Frederick Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees"

Illustration from Frederick Back’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”

Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013.  He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment.  ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) right up until her death on December 17, 2013.

Peter O'Toole in "Stardust"

Peter O’Toole in “Stardust”

Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013.  The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest.  I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence.  He finished the segment by reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).

Mercury-Redstone_4_July_19_launch_attempt_61-MR4-65

Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013.  I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).

nelson_mandela

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept across African nations after independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer==he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer–he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.

Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.

Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013.  He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Young Roger Ebert

Young Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic.  I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.

At the end of the year it is common to list the important people who died during that year along with a list of their honors and accomplishments.  Looking at some of these lists for 2010 frustrated me because most of the obituaries were for actors, musicians, hyper-rich maniacs, and politicians rather than for people whom I actually admire. I have therefore compiled the obituaries of various eminent people whose deaths did not necessarily make a big splash on CNN or similar mass media news outlets. You may never have heard of some of these people until now, but their lives and works were moving to me (and in some cases, such as those of Mandelbrot, Nirenberg, and Black—truly important to a great many people).  I only wrote a very brief biography for each but I included Wikipedia links if you want more information.

Farewell to the following souls. May they rest in peace and may their ideas live on:

January 11 – Éric Rohmer was the last French new wave director.  His flirtatious movies combined knowledge of our secret longings with everyday cheerfulness (always expressed in a very Gallic fashion).  His last work Romance of Astree and Celadon was a screen adaptation of 17th century pastoral play by Honoré d’Urfé.

A still shot from "Pauline at the Beach" (Éric Rohmer, 1983)

January 15 – Marshall Warren Nirenberg was a biologist who won the Nobel Prize (and many other scientific prizes) for ascertaining how genetic instructions are translated from nucleic acids into protein synthesis.

March 22 –  Sir James Whyte Black was a Scottish doctor and pharmacologist who developed a beta blocker used for the treatment of heart disease.  The Texas Journal of Cardiology described this innovation as “one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.”

May 10 – Frank Frazetta was a groundbreaking commercial illustrator whose work has influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

The cover of "Conan the Usurper" (Frank Frazetta, 1967)

June 18 – José Saramago was a Portuguese novelist.  A communist, atheist, and pessimist Saramago wrote metaphorical novels about the human condition in an increasingly crowded & mechanized world.  His most successful work is Blindness a novel about a plague of blindness sweeping through modern society.  The novel is simultaneously a soaring literary allegory and a harrowing horror story.

August 23 – Satoshi Kon was a director of visionary animated movies.  Although his films didn’t always soar to the emotional heights reached by his countryman Miazaki, they were awesomely innovative and greatly forwarded the medium (which in Japan has been moving from children’s entertainment towards literature and art).

A still shot from "Paprika" (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

October 14 – Benoît Mandelbrot was a Franco-American mathematician (born in Poland) who is best known as the father of fractal geometry. His intuition and imagination allowed him to perceive self-similar mathematical underpinnings behind all manner of natural structures.  From galaxies, to coastlines, to blood vessals , to biorhythms–the entire universe is increasingly recognizable as interlocking fractals thanks to his insights.

A Mandelbrot Fractal

October 28 – Akiko Hoshino was a gifted pastel artist who I knew from the Art Students’ League.  She was just beginning to make progress in the art world with her luminous realistic pastel drawings when she was struck and killed by a careless driver who was driving backwards.

Wait for the Right Moment II (Akiko Hoshino, 2010)

November 28 – Leslie Nielsen was a hilarious comic straight man whose deadpan acting carried the great parody films Airplane and The Naked Gun (as well as innumerable derivative spoofs).  As an enduring testament to his greatness, my friends are still stealing his jokes.  Surely he was one of a kind.

"...and don't call me 'Shirley.'"

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031