The Chemist Alice Ball Pioneered a Treatment for Leprosy in 1915–and Then Others Stole the Credit for It

It’s bit­ter­sweet when­ev­er a pio­neer­ing, long over­looked female sci­en­tist is final­ly giv­en the recog­ni­tion she deserves, espe­cial­ly so when the sci­en­tist in ques­tion is a per­son of col­or.

Chemist Alice Ball’s youth and dri­ve — just 23 in 1915, when she dis­cov­ered a gen­tle, but effec­tive method for treat­ing lep­rosy — make her an excel­lent role mod­el for stu­dents with an inter­est in STEM.

But in a move that’s only shock­ing for its famil­iar­i­ty, an oppor­tunis­tic male col­league, Arthur Dean, fina­gled a way to claim cred­it for her work.

We’ve all heard the tales of female sci­en­tists who were inte­gral team play­ers on impor­tant projects, who ulti­mate­ly saw their role vast­ly down­played upon pub­li­ca­tion or their names left off of a pres­ti­gious award.

But Dean’s claim that he was the one who had dis­cov­ered an injectable water-sol­u­ble method for treat­ing lep­rosy with oil from the seeds of the chaul­moogra fruit is all the more galling, giv­en that he did so after Alice Ball’s trag­i­cal­ly ear­ly death at the age of 24, sus­pect­ed to be the result of acci­den­tal poi­son­ing dur­ing a class­room lab demon­stra­tion.

Not every­one believed him.

Ball, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii chem­istry department’s first Black female grad­u­ate stu­dent, and, sub­se­quent­ly, its first Black female chem­istry instruc­tor, had come to the atten­tion of Har­ry T. Holl­mann, a U.S. Pub­lic Health Offi­cer who shared her con­vic­tion that chaul­moogra oil might hold the key to treat­ing lep­rosy.

After her death in 1916, Holl­mann reviewed Dean’s pub­li­ca­tions regard­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful new lep­rosy treat­ment then referred to as the Dean Method and wrote that he could not see “any improve­ment what­so­ev­er over the orig­i­nal [method] as worked out by Miss Ball:”

After a great amount of exper­i­men­tal work, Miss Ball solved the prob­lem for me by mak­ing the eth­yl esters of the fat­ty acids found in chaul­moogra oil.

Type “the Dean Method lep­rosy” into a search engine and you’ll be reward­ed with a sat­is­fy­ing wealth of Alice Ball pro­files, all of which go into detail regard­ing her dis­cov­ery of what became known as the Ball Method, in use until the 1940s.

Kath­leen M. Wong’s arti­cle on this trail­blaz­ing sci­en­tist in the Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine delves into why Hollmann’s pro­fes­sion­al efforts to posthu­mous­ly con­fer cred­it where cred­it was due were insuf­fi­cient to secure Ball her right­ful place in sci­ence his­to­ry.

That began to change in the 1990s when Stan Ali, a retiree research­ing Black peo­ple in Hawaii, found his inter­est piqued by a ref­er­ence to a “young Negro chemist” work­ing on lep­rosy in The Samar­i­tans of Molokai.

Ali teamed up with Paul Wer­mager, a retired Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii librar­i­an, and Kathryn Wad­dell Takara, a poet and pro­fes­sor in the Eth­nic Stud­ies Depart­ment. Togeth­er, they began comb­ing over old sources for any pass­ing ref­er­ence to Ball and her work. They came to believe that her absence from the sci­en­tif­ic record owed to sex­ism and racism:

Dur­ing and just after her life­time, she was believed to be part Hawai­ian, not Black. (Her birth and death cer­tifi­cates list both Ball and her par­ents as white, per­haps to “make trav­el, busi­ness and life in gen­er­al eas­i­er,” accord­ing to the Hon­olu­lu Star-Bul­letin.) In 1910, Black peo­ple made up just 0.4 per­cent of Hawaiʻi’s pop­u­la­tion.

“When [the news­pa­pers] real­ized she was not part Hawai­ian, but [Black], they felt they had made an embar­rass­ing mis­take, for­get­ting about it and hop­ing it would go away,” Ali said. “It did for 75 years.”

Their com­bined efforts spurred the state of Hawaii to declare Feb­ru­ary 28 Alice Ball Day. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii installed a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque near a chaul­moogra tree on cam­pus. Her por­trait hangs in the university’s Hamil­ton Library, along­side a posthu­mous­ly award­ed Medal of Dis­tinc­tion.

(“Mean­while,” as Car­lyn L. Tani dry­ly observes in Hon­olu­lu Mag­a­zine, “Dean Hall on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Mānoa cam­pus stands as an endur­ing mon­u­ment to Arthur L. Dean.)

Fur­ther afield, the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine cel­e­brat­ed its 120th anniver­sary by adding Ball’s, Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s and Flo­rence Nightingale’s names to a frieze that had pre­vi­ous­ly hon­ored 23 emi­nent men.

And now, the God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith has tak­en it upon her­self to intro­duce Ball to an even wider audi­ence, after run­ning across a ref­er­ence to her while con­duct­ing research for her just released A Book of Days.

As Smith notes in an inter­view with Numéro:

Things have real­ly changed. I think we are liv­ing in a very beau­ti­ful peri­od of time because there are so many female artists, poets, sci­en­tists, and activists. Through books espe­cial­ly, we are redis­cov­er­ing and valu­ing the women who have been unjust­ly for­got­ten in our his­to­ry. Dur­ing my research, I came across a young black sci­en­tist who lived in Hawaii in the 1920s. At that time, there was a big lep­er colony in Hawaii. She had dis­cov­ered a treat­ment using the oil from the seeds of a tree to relieve the pain and allow patients to see their friends and fam­i­ly. Her name was Alice Ball, and she died at just 24 after a ter­ri­ble chem­i­cal acci­dent dur­ing an exper­i­ment. Her research was tak­en up by a pro­fes­sor who removed her name from the study to take full cred­it. It is only recent­ly that peo­ple have dis­cov­ered that she was the one who did the work.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

How the Female Sci­en­tist Who Dis­cov­ered the Green­house Gas Effect Was For­got­ten by His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Physicist Who Has Created 1600+ Wikipedia Entries for Important Female & Minority Scientists

I find noth­ing more reward­ing, hon­est­ly, than see­ing peo­ple get rec­og­nized and cham­pi­oned for what they’ve done. — Dr. Jess Wade

As far as cen­turies go, the 21st one is a rel­a­tive­ly good time to be a girl with an inter­est in STEM.

Mod­ern sci­ence-lov­ing girls find them­selves born into a world where books and TV shows cel­e­brat­ing their inter­est pro­lif­er­ate. Their class­rooms are fes­tooned with posters of trail­blaz­ing female sci­en­tists. Even Bar­bie has ditched her bathing suit for a lab coat and a micro­scope.

You’d think Wikipedia would have kept pace in this cli­mate.

And it has…thanks almost entire­ly to the efforts of Dr. Jess Wade, a 33-year-old Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Research Fel­low who spends her days inves­ti­gat­ing spin selec­tive charge trans­port through chi­ral sys­tems in the Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als.

Her evenings, how­ev­er, belong to Wikipedia.

That’s when she drafts entries for under rec­og­nized female sci­en­tists and sci­en­tists of col­or.

“I had a tar­get for doing one a day, but some­times I get too excit­ed and do three,” she told The Guardian in 2018.

To date she’s added more than 1,600 names, striv­ing to make their biogra­phies as ful­ly fleshed out as any of the write ups for the white male sci­en­tists who flour­ish on the site.

This requires some foren­sic dig­ging. Dis­cov­er­ing a subject’s maid­en name is often the crit­i­cal step to find­ing her PhD the­sis and ear­ly influ­ences.

A hand­ful of Wade’s entries have been strick­en for the tru­ly mad­den­ing rea­son that their sub­jects are too obscure to war­rant inclu­sion.

Wade’s own Wikipedia entry notes the hypocrisy of this log­ic, refer­ring read­ers to a 2019 Chem­istry World arti­cle in which she’s quot­ed:

When you make a page and it is dis­put­ed for dele­tion, it is not only annoy­ing because your work is being delet­ed. It’s also incred­i­bly intru­sive and degrad­ing to have some­one dis­cuss whether someone’s notable enough to be on Wikipedia – a web­site that has pages about almost every pop song, peo­ple who are extras in films no one has ever heard of and peo­ple who were in sports teams that nev­er scored.

Below are just a few of the 1600+ female sci­en­tists she’s intro­duced to a wider audi­ence. While his­to­ry abounds with near­ly invis­i­ble names whose dis­cov­er­ies and con­tri­bu­tions have been inad­e­quate­ly rec­og­nized, or all too fre­quent­ly attrib­uted to male col­leagues, these women are all con­tem­po­rary.

Nuclear chemist Clarice Phelps was part of the team that helped dis­cov­er, ten­nes­sine, the sec­ond heav­i­est known ele­ment.

Math­e­mati­cian Gladys Mae West was one of the devel­op­ers of GPS.

Phys­i­cal chemist June Lind­sey played a key role in the dis­cov­ery of the DNA dou­ble helix.

Oceanog­ra­ph­er and cli­mate sci­en­tist Kim Cobb uses corals and cave sta­lag­mites to inform pro­jec­tions of future cli­mate change.

Vac­ci­nol­o­gist Sarah Gilbert led the team that devel­oped the Oxford/AstraZeneca vac­cine (and inspired a Bar­bie cre­at­ed in her image, though you can be assured that the Wikipedia entry Wade researched and wrote for her came first.)

Wade’s hope is that a high­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion of female sci­en­tists and sci­en­tists of col­or on a crowd­sourced, eas­i­ly-accessed plat­form like Wikipedia will deal a blow to ingrained gen­der bias, expand­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion of who can par­tic­i­pate in these sorts of careers and encour­ag­ing young girls to pur­sue these cours­es of study. As she told the New York Times:

I’ve always done a lot of work to try to get young peo­ple — par­tic­u­lar­ly girls and chil­dren from low­er socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds and peo­ple of col­or — to think about study­ing physics at high school, because physics is still very much that kind of elit­ist, white boy sub­ject.

Our sci­ence can only ben­e­fit the whole of soci­ety if it’s done by the whole of soci­ety. And that’s not cur­rent­ly the case.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Wade is often asked how to fos­ter and sup­port girls with an inter­est in sci­ence, beyond upping the num­ber of role mod­els avail­able to them on Wikipedia.

The way for­ward, she told NBC, is not atten­tion-get­ting “whiz bang” one-off events and assem­blies, but rather pay­ing skilled teach­ers as well as bankers, to men­tor stu­dents on their course of study, and also help them apply for grants, fel­low­ships and oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties. As stu­dents pre­pare to enter the work­force, clear­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed sex­u­al harass­ment poli­cies and assis­tance with child­care and elder­care become cru­cial:

Ulti­mate­ly, we don’t only need to increase the num­ber of girls choos­ing sci­ence, we need to increase the pro­por­tion of women who stay in sci­ence.

Lis­ten to Jess Wade talk about her Wikipedia project on NPR’s sci­ence pro­gram Short Wave here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Lit­tle-Known Female Sci­en­tists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Cen­tu­ry Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Har­vard Com­put­ers”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Hitchens’ Final Interview: Hear the Newly-Released Uncut Conversation with Richard Dawkins

Nev­er was there such an exhil­a­rat­ing time and place to be inter­est­ed in athe­ism than the inter­net of ten or fif­teen years ago. “Peo­ple com­piled end­less lists of argu­ments and coun­ter­ar­gu­ments for or against athe­ism,” remem­bers blog­ger Scott Alexan­der. One athe­ist news­group “cre­at­ed a Dewey-Dec­i­mal-sys­tem-esque index of almost a thou­sand cre­ation­ist argu­ments” and “painstak­ing­ly debunked all of them.” In turn, their cre­ation­ist arch-ene­mies “went through and debunked all of their debunk­ings.” Read­ers could enjoy a host of athe­ism-themed web comics and “the now-infa­mous r/atheism sub­red­dit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s high­est-ranked, beat­ing top­ics like ‘news,’ ‘humor,’ and — some­how — ‘sex.’ At the time, this seemed per­fect­ly nor­mal.”

This was the cul­ture in which Richard Dawkins pub­lished The God Delu­sion, in 2006, and Christo­pher Hitchens pub­lished his God Is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poi­sons Every­thing in 2007. “I’m not just doing what pub­lish­ers like and com­ing up with a provoca­tive sub­ti­tle,” Alexan­der quotes Hitchens as say­ing.  “I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integri­ty. It says we can’t be moral with­out ‘Big Broth­er,’ with­out a total­i­tar­i­an per­mis­sion, means we can’t be good to one anoth­er with­out this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love some­one whom we fear — the essence of sado­masochism, the essence of abjec­tion, the essence of the mas­ter-slave rela­tion­ship and that knows that death is com­ing and can’t wait to bring it on.”

Dawkins and Hitchens became known as two of the “Four Horse­men of the Non-Apoc­a­lypse,” a group of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als that also includ­ed Sam Har­ris and Daniel Den­nett. The label stuck after all of them sat down for a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion on video in the fall 2007, dur­ing which each man laid out his cri­tique of the reli­gious world­view. Four years lat­er, Dawkins and Hitchens sat down for anoth­er record­ed con­ver­sa­tion, this time one-on-one and with a much dif­fer­ent tone. Hav­ing suf­fered from can­cer for more than a year, Hitchens seemed not to be long for this world, and indeed, he would be dead in just two months. But his con­di­tion hard­ly stopped him from speak­ing with his usu­al inci­sive­ness on top­ics of great inter­est, and espe­cial­ly his and Dawkins’ shared bête noire of fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion.

Dawkins, a biol­o­gist, sees in the pow­er grant­ed to reli­gion a threat to hard-won sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge about the nature of real­i­ty; Hitchens, a writer and thinker in the tra­di­tion of George Orwell, saw it as one of the many forms of total­i­tar­i­an­ism that has ever threat­ened the intel­lec­tu­al and bod­i­ly free­dom of humankind. In this, Hitchens’ final inter­view (which was print­ed in Hitchens’ Last Inter­view book and whose uncut audio record­ing came avail­able only this year), Dawkins express­es some con­cern that he’s become a “bore” with his usu­al anti-reli­gious defense of sci­ence. Non­sense, Hitchens says: an hon­est sci­en­tist risks being called a bore just as an hon­est jour­nal­ist risks being called stri­dent, but nev­er­the­less, “you’ve got to bang on.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Does God Exist? Christo­pher Hitchens Debates Chris­t­ian Philoso­pher William Lane Craig (2009)

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Christo­pher Hitchens: No Deathbed Con­ver­sion for Me, Thanks, But it was Good of You to Ask

Mas­ter Cura­tor Paul Hold­en­gräber Inter­views Hitchens, Her­zog, Goure­vitch & Oth­er Lead­ing Thinkers

The Last Inter­view Book Series Fea­tures the Final Words of Cul­tur­al Icons: Borges to Bowie, Philip K. Dick to Fri­da Kahlo

Richard Dawkins on Why We Should Believe in Sci­ence: “It Works … Bitch­es”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Behold a Book of Color Shades Depicted with Feathers (Circa 1915)

Per­haps the 143 col­ors show­cased in The Bay­er Company’s ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry sam­ple book, Shades on Feath­ers, could be col­lect­ed in the field, but it would involve a lot of trav­el and patience, and the stalk­ing of sev­er­al endan­gered if not down­right extinct avian species.

Far eas­i­er, and much less expen­sive, for milliners, design­ers and dec­o­ra­tors to dye plain white feath­ers  exot­ic shades, fol­low­ing the instruc­tions in the sam­ple book.

Such arti­fi­cial­ly obtained rain­bows owe a lot to William Hen­ry Perkin, a teenage stu­dent of Ger­man chemist August Wil­helm von Hof­mann, who spent East­er vaca­tion of 1856 exper­i­ment­ing with ani­line, an organ­ic base his teacher had ear­li­er dis­cov­ered in coal tar.  Hop­ing to hit on a syn­thet­ic form of qui­nine, he acci­den­tal­ly hit on a solu­tion that col­ored silk a love­ly pur­ple shade — an inad­ver­tent eure­ka moment that ranks right up there with peni­cillin and the pret­zel.

A Sci­ence Muse­um Group pro­file details what hap­pened next:

Perkin named the colour mauve and the dye mau­veine. He decid­ed to try to mar­ket his dis­cov­ery instead of return­ing to col­lege.

On 26 August 1856, the Patent Office grant­ed Perkin a patent for ‘a new colour­ing mat­ter for dye­ing with a lilac or pur­ple colour stuffs of silk, cot­ton, wool, or oth­er mate­ri­als’.

Perk­in’s next step was to inter­est cloth dyers and print­ers in his dis­cov­ery. He had no expe­ri­ence of the tex­tile trade and lit­tle knowl­edge of large-scale chem­i­cal man­u­fac­ture. He cor­re­spond­ed with Robert and John Pullar in Glas­gow, who offered him sup­port. Perk­in’s luck changed towards the end of 1857 when the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, decid­ed that mauve was the colour to wear. In Jan­u­ary 1858, Queen Vic­to­ria fol­lowed suit, wear­ing mauve to her daughter’s wed­ding.

Cue an explo­sion of dye man­u­fac­tur­ers across Great Britain and Europe, includ­ing Bay­er, pro­duc­er of the feath­er sam­ple book. The sur­vival of this arti­fact is some­what mirac­u­lous giv­en how vul­ner­a­ble antique feath­ers are to envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, pests, and improp­er stor­age.

(The sam­ple book rec­om­mends clean­ing the feath­ers pri­or to dying in a luke­warm solu­tion of small amounts of olive oil soap and ammo­nia.)

The Sci­ence His­to­ry Insti­tute, own­er of this unusu­al object, esti­mates that the undat­ed book was pro­duced between 1913 and 1918, the year the Migra­to­ry Bird Act Treaty out­lawed the hunt­ing of birds whose feath­ers humans deemed par­tic­u­lar­ly fash­ion­able.

Peruse the Sci­ence His­to­ry Insti­tute of Philadel­phi­a’s dig­i­tized copy of the Shades on Feath­ers sam­ple book here.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Down­load 435 High Res­o­lu­tion Images from John J. Audubon’s The Birds of Amer­i­ca

The Bird­song Project Fea­tures 220 Musi­cians, Actors, Artists & Writ­ers Pay­ing Trib­ute to Birds: Watch Per­for­mances by Yo-Yo Ma, Elvis Costel­lo and Beck

The Bird Library: A Library Built Espe­cial­ly for Our Fine Feath­ered Friends

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Is There Life After Death?: Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Sam Harris & More Explore One of Life’s Biggest Questions

We should prob­a­bly not look to sci­ence to have cher­ished beliefs con­firmed. As sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of the world has pro­gressed over the cen­turies, it has brought on a loss of humans’ sta­tus as priv­i­leged beings at the cen­ter of the uni­verse whose task is to sub­due and con­quer nature. (The stub­born per­sis­tence of those atti­tudes among the pow­er­ful has not served the species well.) We are not spe­cial, but we are still respon­si­ble, we have learned — maybe total­ly respon­si­ble for our lives on this plan­et. The meth­ods of sci­ence do not lend them­selves to sooth­ing exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety.

But what about the most cher­ished, and like­ly ancient, of human beliefs: faith in an after­life?  Ideas of an under­world, or heav­en, or hell have ani­mat­ed human cul­ture since its ear­li­est ori­gins. There is no soci­ety in the world where we will not find some belief in an after­life exist­ing com­fort­ably along­side life’s most mun­dane events. Is it a harm­ful idea? Is there any real evi­dence to sup­port it? And which ver­sion of an after­life — if such a thing exist­ed — should we believe?

Such ques­tions stack up. Answers in forms sci­ence can rec­on­cile seem dimin­ish­ing­ly few. Nonethe­less, as we see in the Big Think video above, sci­en­tists, sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tors, and sci­ence enthu­si­asts are will­ing to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ty, or impos­si­bil­i­ty, of con­tin­u­ing after death. We begin with NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller, who ref­er­ences Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of the uni­verse as ful­ly com­plete, “so every point in the past and every point in the future are just as real as the point of time you feel your­self in right now.” Time spreads out in a land­scape, each moment already mapped and sur­veyed.

When a close friend died, Ein­stein wrote a let­ter to his friend’s wife explain­ing, “Your hus­band, my friend, is just over the next hill. He’s still there” — in a the­o­ret­i­cal sense. It may not have been the com­fort she was look­ing for. The hope of an after­life is that we’ll see our loved ones again, some­thing Ein­stein’s solu­tion does not allow. Sam Har­ris — who has leaned into the mys­ti­cal prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion while pulling it from its reli­gious con­text — admits that death is a “dark mys­tery.” When peo­ple die, “there’s just the sheer not know­ing what hap­pened to them. And into this void, reli­gion comes rush­ing with a very con­sol­ing sto­ry, say­ing noth­ing hap­pened them; they’re in a bet­ter place and you’re going to meet up with them after.”

The sto­ry isn’t always so con­sol­ing, depend­ing on how puni­tive the reli­gion, but it does offer an expla­na­tion and sense of cer­tain­ty in the face of “sheer not know­ing.” The human mind does not tol­er­ate uncer­tain­ty par­tic­u­lar­ly well. Death feels like the great­est unknown of all. (Har­ris’ argu­ment par­al­lels that of anthro­pol­o­gist Pas­cal Boy­er on the ori­gin of all reli­gions.) But the phe­nom­e­non of death is not unknown to us. We are sur­round­ed by it dai­ly, from the plants and ani­mals we con­sume to the pets we sad­ly let go when their lifes­pans end. Do we keep our­selves up won­der­ing what hap­pened to these beings? Maybe our spir­i­tu­al or reli­gious beliefs aren’t always about death.…

“In the Old Tes­ta­ment there isn’t real­ly any sort of view of the after­life,” says Rob Bell, a spir­i­tu­al teacher (and the only talk­ing head here not aligned with a sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tion or ratio­nal­ist move­ment). “This idea that the whole thing is about when you die is not real­ly the way that lots of peo­ple have thought about it.” For many reli­gious prac­ti­tion­ers, the idea of eter­nal life means “liv­ing in har­mo­ny with the divine right now.” For many, this “right now” — this very moment and each one we expe­ri­ence after it — is eter­nal. See more views of the after­life above from sci­ence edu­ca­tors like Bill Nye and sci­en­tists like Michio Kaku, who says the kind of after­lives we’ve only seen in sci­ence fic­tion — “dig­i­tal and genet­ic immor­tal­i­ty” — “are with­in reach.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Nick Cave’s Beau­ti­ful Let­ter About Grief

Richard Feyn­man on Reli­gion, Sci­ence, the Search for Truth & Our Will­ing­ness to Live with Doubt

Michio Kaku & Bri­an Green Explain String The­o­ry in a Nut­shell: Ele­gant Expla­na­tions of an Ele­gant The­o­ry

Philoso­pher Sam Har­ris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

Sci-Fi Writer Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the Future in 1964: Artificial Intelligence, Instantaneous Global Communication, Remote Work, Singularity & More

Are you feel­ing con­fi­dent about the future? No? We under­stand. Would you like to know what it was like to feel a deep cer­tain­ty that the decades to come were going to be filled with won­der and the fan­tas­tic? Well then, gaze upon this clip from the BBC Archive YouTube chan­nel of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke pre­dict­ing the future in 1964.

Although we best know him for writ­ing 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1964 tele­vi­sion view­ing pub­lic would have known him for his futur­ism and his tal­ent for calm­ly explain­ing all the great things to come. In the late 1940s, he had already pre­dict­ed telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites. In 1962 he pub­lished his col­lect­ed essays, Pro­files of the Future, which con­tains many of the ideas in this clip.

Here he cor­rect­ly pre­dicts the ease with which we can be con­tact­ed wher­ev­er in the world we choose to, where we can con­tact our friends “any­where on earth even if we don’t know their loca­tion.” What Clarke doesn’t pre­dict here is how “loca­tion” isn’t a thing when we’re on the inter­net. He imag­ines peo­ple work­ing just as well from Tahi­ti or Bali as they do from Lon­don. Clarke sees this advance­ment as the down­fall of the mod­ern city, as we do not need to com­mute into the city to work. Now, as so many of us are doing our jobs from home post-COVID, we’ve also dis­cov­ered the dystopia in that fan­ta­sy. (It cer­tain­ly has­n’t dropped the cost of rent.)

Next, he pre­dicts advances in biotech­nol­o­gy that would allow us to, say, train mon­keys to work as ser­vants and work­ers. (Until, he jokes, they form a union and “we’d be back right where we start­ed.) Per­haps, he says, humans have stopped evolving—what comes next is arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (although that phrase had yet to be used) and machine evo­lu­tion, where we’d be hon­ored to be the “step­ping stone” towards that des­tiny. Make of that what you will. I know you might think it would be cool to have a mon­key but­ler, but c’mon, think of the ethics, not to men­tion the cost of bananas.

Point­ing out where Clarke gets it wrong is too easy—-nobody gets it right all of the time. How­ev­er, it is fas­ci­nat­ing that some things that have nev­er come to pass—-being able to learn a lan­guage overnight, or eras­ing your memories—have man­aged to resur­face over the years as fic­tion films, like Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind. His ideas of cryo­genic sus­pen­sion are sta­ples of numer­ous hard sci-fi films.

And we are still wait­ing for the “Repli­ca­tor” machine, which would make exact dupli­cates of objects (and by so doing cause a col­lapse into “glut­to­nous bar­barism” because we’d want unlim­it­ed amounts of every­thing.) Some com­menters call this a pre­cur­sor to 3‑D print­ing. I’d say oth­er­wise, but some­thing very close to it might be around the cor­ner. Who knows? Clarke him­self agrees about all this conjecture-—it’s doomed to fail.

“That is why the future is so end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. Try as we can, we’ll nev­er out­guess it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Arthur C. Clarke Read 2001: A Space Odyssey: A Vin­tage 1976 Vinyl Record­ing

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future on The David Let­ter­man Show (1980)

How Pre­vi­ous Decades Pre­dict­ed the Future: The 21st Cen­tu­ry as Imag­ined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Oth­er Eras

Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Pre­dict­ing the Future

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Marie Curie’s Ph.D. Thesis on Radioactivity–Which Made Her the First Woman in France to Receive a Doctoral Degree in Physics

For her ground­break­ing research on radioac­tiv­i­ty, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize. Or rather, she won two, one for physics and anoth­er for chem­istry, mak­ing her the only Nobel Lau­re­ate in more than one sci­ence. What’s more, her first Nobel came in 1903, the very same year she com­plet­ed her PhD the­sis at the Sor­bonne. In Recherch­es sur les sub­stances radioac­tives (or Research on Radioac­tive Sub­stances), Curie “talks about the dis­cov­ery of the new ele­ments radi­um and polo­ni­um, and also describes how she gained one of the first under­stand­ings of the new phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­non of radioac­tiv­i­ty.”

So says sci­ence Youtu­ber Toby Hendy in the intro­duc­tion below to Curie’s the­sis–a the­sis that made her the first woman in France to receive a doc­tor­al degree in physics. “Fol­low­ing on from the dis­cov­ery of X‑rays by Wil­helm Roent­gen in 1895 and Hen­ri Becquerel’s dis­cov­ery that ura­ni­um salts emit­ted sim­i­lar pen­e­tra­tion prop­er­ties,” says The Doc­u­ment Cen­tre, Curie “inves­ti­gat­ed ura­ni­um rays as a start­ing point, but in the process dis­cov­ered that the air around ura­ni­um rays is made to con­duct elec­tric­i­ty.”

Her deduc­tion that “the process was caused by prop­er­ties of the atoms them­selves” — a rev­o­lu­tion­ary find­ing that over­turned pre­vi­ous­ly held notions in physics — led her even­tu­al­ly to dis­cov­er radi­um and polo­ni­um, which would get her that sec­ond Nobel in 1911.

Unlike her Nobel Prize in physics, which she shared with her hus­band Pierre and the physi­cist Hen­ri Bec­quer­el, Marie Curie won her Nobel Prize in chem­istry alone. By 1911 Pierre had been dead for half a decade, but Marie’s sci­en­tif­ic genius could­n’t be stopped from con­tin­u­ing their pio­neer­ing research as far as she could take it in her own life­time. She clear­ly knew how vast a field her work, with and with­out her hus­band, had opened up: “Our research­es upon the new radio-active bod­ies have giv­en rise to a sci­en­tif­ic move­ment,” she writes at the end of Recherch­es sur les sub­stances radioac­tives. That move­ment con­tin­ues to make dis­cov­er­ies more than a cen­tu­ry lat­er — and her orig­i­nal the­sis itself remains radioac­tive.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Work of Marie Curie, the First Female Nobel Lau­re­ate

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

Marie Curie Invent­ed Mobile X‑Ray Units to Help Save Wound­ed Sol­diers in World War I

How Amer­i­can Women “Kick­start­ed” a Cam­paign to Give Marie Curie a Gram of Radi­um, Rais­ing $120,000 in 1921

Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioac­tive 100+ Years Lat­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Why Do Oreos Never Come Apart Evenly?: MIT Researchers Build an “Oreometer” to Find the Answer

Despite hav­ing been around for well over a cen­tu­ry, the Oreo cook­ie has man­aged to retain cer­tain mys­ter­ies. Why, for exam­ple, does it nev­er come apart even­ly? Though dif­fer­ent Oreo-eaters pre­fer dif­fer­ent meth­ods of Oreo-eat­ing, an espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar approach to the world’s most pop­u­lar cook­ie involves twist­ing it open before con­sump­tion. That action pro­duces two sep­a­rate choco­late wafers, but as even kinder­garten­ers know from long and frus­trat­ing expe­ri­ence, the crème fill­ing sticks only to one side. It seems that no man­u­al tech­nique, no mat­ter how advanced, can split the con­tents of an Oreo close to even­ly, and only recent­ly have a team of researchers at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy sought an expla­na­tion.

This endeav­or neces­si­tat­ed an inves­ti­ga­tion of the Ore­o’s rhe­ol­o­gy — the study of the flow of mat­ter, espe­cial­ly liq­uids but also “soft solids” like crème fill­ing. Like all sci­en­tif­ic research, it involved inten­sive exper­i­men­ta­tion, and even the inven­tion of a new mea­sure­ment device: in this case, a sim­ple 3D-print­able “Ore­ome­ter” (seen in ani­mat­ed action above) that uses pen­nies and rub­ber bands.

With it the researchers applied “applied vary­ing degrees of torque and angu­lar rota­tion, not­ing the val­ues that suc­cess­ful­ly twist­ed each cook­ie apart,” writes MIT News’ Jen­nifer Chu. “In all, the team went through about 20 box­es of Ore­os, includ­ing reg­u­lar, Dou­ble Stuf, and Mega Stuf lev­els of fill­ing, and reg­u­lar, dark choco­late, and ‘gold­en’ wafer fla­vors. Sur­pris­ing­ly, they found that no mat­ter the amount of cream fill­ing or fla­vor, the cream almost always sep­a­rat­ed onto one wafer.”

Crys­tal Owens, a mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing PhD can­di­date work­ing on this project, puts this down in large part to how Ore­os are made. “Videos of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process show that they put the first wafer down, then dis­pense a ball of cream onto that wafer before putting the sec­ond wafer on top. Appar­ent­ly that lit­tle time delay may make the cream stick bet­ter to the first wafer.” But oth­er phys­i­cal fac­tors also bear on the phe­nom­e­non as well, as doc­u­ment­ed in the paper Owens and her col­lab­o­ra­tors pub­lished ear­li­er this year in the jour­nal Physics of Flu­id. “We intro­duce Ore­ol­o­gy (/ɔriːˈɒlədʒi/), from the Nabis­co Oreo for “cook­ie” and the Greek rheo logia for ‘flow study,’ as the study of the flow and frac­ture of sand­wich cook­ies,” they write in its abstract. For a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly inclined young­ster, one could hard­ly imag­ine a more com­pelling field.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sci­ence & Cook­ing: Harvard’s Free Course on Mak­ing Cakes, Pael­la & Oth­er Deli­cious Food

Nor­man Rockwell’s Type­writ­ten Recipe for His Favorite Oat­meal Cook­ies

Dessert Recipes of Icon­ic Thinkers: Emi­ly Dickinson’s Coconut Cake, George Orwell’s Christ­mas Pud­ding, Alice B. Tok­las’ Hashish Fudge & More

Mak­ing Choco­late the Tra­di­tion­al Way, From Bean to Bar: A Short French Film

MIT Researchers 3D Print a Bridge Imag­ined by Leonar­do da Vin­ci in 1502— and Prove That It Actu­al­ly Works

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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