Everyone loves Christmas lights! Why?

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you celebrate Christmas, these days your mind is probably turning to that eternal question… where did I put the Christmas lights?  No matter if you celebrate Christmas or not, or if you keep your lights up all year round instead of just for a season, it seems that most people can agree that those lovely little lights are a visual treat.  Their warm glow and beautiful colors have been pleasing people around the world since Thomas Edison premiered the first string lights in New York City on Dec 21, 1880.  Although they were large bulbs of plain white, and hanging over a walkway, not a tree, even the dignified New York Times newspaper felt their effect, as the reviewer declared them “beautiful to look upon.” How did string lights become so popular, and so strongly linked to the holiday season that they are now commonly referred to as “Christmas lights?”

The massive popularity of Christmas lights is a tale of technical know-how with plenty of business savvy on the side.  Thomas Edison is often hailed as the inventor of string lights, but in fact, Joseph Swan, an inventor in the UK, was the first to develop the beautiful invention that he called “fairy lights.” However, Thomas Edison, in true Thomas Edison fashion, perfected Swan’s already existing design for mass production, and claimed the design for himself.  When he wasn’t redesigning other people’s inventions, Edison was quite the self-promotional showman and he traveled frequently, giving spectacular demonstrations of his latest electrical marvels.  In his lifetime, the United States was just barely beginning to become electrified.  Cleverly, Thomas Edison used Swan’s fairy lights as a way to entertain, impress, and promote electricity itself. 

Thomas Edison

One of Edison’s main selling points for electrification was the fact that, compared to burning coal or gas in one’s house, electricity was relatively safe.  His mission to promote electricity was helped by the fact that previous Christmas custom had people lighting REAL candles on a Christmas tree, inside.  Although people tended to be very cautious with this beautiful custom and did not usually leave it unsupervised, accidents still happened.  To replace such an obvious fire hazard with a much safer electric one was a stroke of genius.  With his new string lights, he was able to promote both the product and electricity itself to fascinated audiences all over the world.

Helena Jacoba
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Edison was an inventor, but he was also an excellent marketer.  He knew that Swan’s lights would be a perfect item to catch the public’s attention, just like they catch our attention even today.  However, it took a few years before fairy lights were definitively linked to the holiday season as they are now. Working closely with the Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, in 1882 the pair developed a set of colored lights in red, white, and blue, perfect for a tree.  Edward Johnson lived in a part of New York City that had recently been electrified, and so he was able to hand-wire 80 lights to a generator to illuminate his tree, which he conveniently placed in a street-facing parlor window.  On a rotating platform.  The press was drawn like moths to flame.  A writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune said of the lights: “one could hardly imagine anything prettier.”

CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of Christmas lights grew right alongside the popularity of electricity. In 1894, president Grover Cleveland was an early adopter of the trend, electrifying the White House Christmas tree.  The first strings of commercial Christmas lights premiered for public sale, at a price of 12 dollars, or 350 dollars today.  Today in the United States, people buy 150 million dollars’ worth of light sets every year, which light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electricity in December.  Thomas Edison would be very pleased.

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources and Further Reading:

A quick overview of the history and technology of Christmas lights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcPynvIuX-Y

Edison’s Christmas lights: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/untangling-history-christmas-lights-180961140/

Edison’s Christmas lights meet his marketing savvy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qB61a_qbuo

Edison’s inventions that were other people’s first: https://www.historicmysteries.com/did-thomas-edison-steal-inventions/

Edison and Swan: https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/education/worksheet_3-_who_was_joseph_swan.pdf?acsf_files_redirect

The Violent, Vicious, Totally World-Altering History of…Pumpkin Spice?

Your pie has a secret! A dark one.
medea_materialCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American Thanksgiving favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

An innocent nutmeg just doing its thing. The brown nut inside the fruit is ground for Nutmeg. The red membrane is another spice known as Mace.

Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

The tiny Banda Archipelago is part of modern Indonesia’s Malluku Province, seen here in red.

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer.  The fighting between them was brutal, often with many innocent native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

The Island of Run today.
Georg Holderied from Basel, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tart of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.

The Island of Manhattan today.

Sources and Further Reading:

Pumpkin Spice in food: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/packages/food-goals/food-goals-photos/pumpkin-spice-product-guide

Pumpkin Spice in OTHER things: https://www.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/news/2018/10/non-food-pumpkin-spice-products

Nutmeg History and Use Overview: https://www.myspicer.com/history-of-nutmeg/

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOfB88NHO0Y

Video Journey to the Spice Islands:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bovUA3haHgk

Why does kindness exist in the world?

November 13th is World Kindness Day, and with it, the seven days of kindness challenge.  Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?”  Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day?  When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street?   Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever.  The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human.  Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate.  Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!

Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them?  Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce.  Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins.  In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak.  This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless. 

For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive.  In the 21st century, there are  growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate.  Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival. 

The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness.  In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level.  The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol.  People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional  love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!

Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it:  kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike!  Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain.  How can you share in the benefits of kindness?  Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill.  You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day.  In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness.  The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it.   We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise.  So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days?  The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious —  phenomenon of human kindness. 

Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration. If you’re feeling experimental, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel!

The Random Acts of Kindness Project (Sponsors of World Kindness Day) webpage with suggestions for a Seven-day kindness challenge: https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas

The Basics of Altruism in Nature: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKtOXvA14X4

An animated summary of The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gE_IPTXznM

Richard Dawkins discussing Altruism & The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8C-ntwUpzM

Mental and Physical Benefits of Kindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciVdg5O2b-w

Frans De Waal TED talk about Morality in Animals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnnSjdpoBVw

Dacher Keltner TED talk on Empathy and Compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsFxWSuu_4I

In Honor of Dr. Norman Ikari, Warrior and Scientist

The Unit Insignia of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, in which Dr. Ikari served during WWII. The 442nd is the most decorated Military Unit in all of US Military history.

Since the advent of modern science, the link between science and the military has been very strong.  Not only in terms of the technology produced, but in the number of veterans who went on to advance many different fields of science during and after their time in the military.  American Veterans have used the military training to launch careers in fields such as aeronautics, computing, chemistry, and physics.  A large number of veterans also went on to further the field of medicine.   Today we profile Dr. Norman Ikari, one of these incredible Warrior Scientists, and we thank all Veterans, whether scientist or not, for their service to our nation.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alicia Gilbert, a member of the Airlift Control Flight coordinates and schedules military airlift operations at Bush Field, Augusta, Ga., July 19, in support of Global Medic 2010. Global Medic is a joint field training exercise for theater aeromedical evacuation system and ground medical components designed to replicate all aspects of combat medical service support.

Dr. Norman Ikari was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrant parents who came to America during the era of World War I.  Dr. Ikari assisted in the family business and enjoyed a happy American childhood. He recalled that his first brush with racial prejudice darkened his outlook; when his family moved to California, they were not allowed to move in to a house they were renting because none of the neighbors wanted Japanese people in the neighborhood.  He recalled it was the only time he ever saw his mother cry.  The Ikari family went on to be successful in their dry cleaning business, and young Norman enrolled pre-med at City College in Los Angeles.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and with it, came great fear and suspicion of Japanese people, even if they were American citizens like the Ikaris. 

Anti-Japanese sentiment, as seen in this propaganda poster, ran very high in the US at the time of WWII.

Dr. Ikari was drafted into the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor.  Because of his pre-med studies he was sent to Camp Grant, a Medical Replacement Training Center in Illinois. He had only been in training for a month when he learned that his family had been removed to a Japanese Internment Camp. He recalled a difficult trip to visit them when, even in the uniform of the US Army, he was constantly challenged and questioned on the way, and almost not allowed to enter the camp.  Nonetheless Dr. Ikari loved the USA and was proud to serve in the military.  In fact, after time spent at the Camp Grant Laboratory he decided he wanted to do something more than just “rattling test tubes.”

A rough barrack at Manzanar camp, where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans, thought to be a threat to the US, were forced to live during WWII.

When he heard the news that the Army had created the 442nd Regiment, a regiment composed entirely of Japanese American volunteers, he requested to join them immediately.  Of his decision, he said modestly: “Not that I was adventurous, but I would like to have something more going in my army life.”  He joined the regiment and was immersed in combat training, then sent to Italy in 1944.  He experienced combat in Italy until June of 1944, when a German machine gun ripped into his legs and shot straight through one of his femurs.  He was retrieved from an Italian hillside by a brave team of soldiers and subsequently spent a long period hospitalized with his wounds. 

Members of the 442nd taking cover from German Artillery during combat in Italy.

The 442nd Regiment, otherwise known as the “Go For Broke Regiment” were some of the fiercest fighters in the entire war, and became the most decorated regiment in all of US military history. Dr. Ikari received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.  His long period of recovery marked a turning point in his life: the beginning of his path towards becoming a research Microbiologist/Immunologist.  He first studied for a degree in Bacteriology at UCLA, but upheavals in his life lead him to move to Washington, D.C. He began working at the National Institutes of Health as an infectious disease researcher.  He received his PhD in1965 from Georgetown and went on to have a long career as a researcher and administrator at the NIH.  One of his published studies, “Bactericidal Antibody to Escherichia Coli in Germ-Free Mice” (1964),  is still a benchmark in the field.  He passed away at the age of 99 in 2018, after a long, courageous, and impactful life. Thank you, Dr. Ikari!

President Barack Obama and his guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, Oct. 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sources and Further Reading:

American Veterans’ Center Tribute Video to the 442nd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8buFZR52wY

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview:  https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.10680/

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview: https://ndajams.omeka.net/items/show/1053100

Asian American Heroism in WWII: https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-4807

The Story of Two Japanese Americans who served in WWII, featuring Dr. Norman Ikari: https://www.historynet.com/the-story-of-two-japanese-americans-who-fought-in-world-war-ii.htm

Dr. Ikari’s Article: https://www.nature.com/articles/202879a0

The Beautiful Mystery of Light

Happy Diwali!  On Nov 4th, Hindus around the world will celebrate this major festival of light and love.  Over five days, there will be gifts, feasts, new clothes, and the joyful celebration of several Hindu Gods and Goddesses.  Another key ingredient to the Diwali festival is something that is revered by scientists and religious worshippers alike: light.  During the Diwali festival, participants lay out special candle-like lamps in beautiful designs, or even special electric Diwali lights to illuminate the darkness.  Diwali sparkles with light, and for good reason: in Hindu belief, darkness represents ignorance, and light represents knowledge.  Lighting the lamps of Diwali symbolizes how knowledge can overcome negative forces like oppression, violence, and fear. 

Hinduism, and many other religious traditions around the world, see light as a gift from the Divine.  It is through light that we are able to experience the beauty of this world, and since ancient times light has long been associated with positive forces in this world.  From Jewish believers lighting a menorah, to the sacredness of the Rainbow in many Indigenous American traditions, light is the touch of the Divine here on earth. 

People have cherished light and celebrated it since time out of mind.  But, what exactly is light?  From a scientific standpoint, light is a very complex entity that is still quite mysterious.  Many of us are familiar with the “is light a wave or a particle” question that is even now one of the very biggest questions in science.  The scientific study of light in the 20th century was so profound that it gave rise to what we know as quantum physics today, but the truth is people have been experimenting to understand the nature of light for thousands of years. 

Sasha Grusche, Newton Performing his Experimentum Crucis, 2015

The Ancient Greeks observed animals’ eyes glowing in the dark and inferred that light was not outside of our bodies, but a ray that came from our eyes and illuminated everything around us.  In that way, our eyes were more like a flashlight, not a camera as we know today.  This was accepted wisdom in the Western part of the world for centuries.  But, light is so fascinating, so beautiful and mysterious, that, in the 10th century, a Muslim thinker known as Ibn Al-Haytham carried out one of the very first documented scientific experiments ever to learn more about it.   Ibn Al-Haytham decided to test the Greeks’ theory about light by testing it in controlled situations under varied conditions – a method otherwise known as the scientific method! One of his experiments placed two lanterns outside a completely dark room where the light shone through in two spots onto the walls.  When one lantern was covered, the spot disappeared, proving that light was something outside of us, not coming from our bodies.

Ibn Al-Haytham, 965-1040 CE

After Al-Haytham’s foundational experiments, many other scientists went on to discover more about light, with no less than Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton doing some of their best work around the question of what light is and how it works.  Yet, 1,000 years after Al-Haytham’s first experiment, the nature of light remains a beautiful mystery that we, as humans, are lucky to experience each and every day.  Happy Diwali!  May your Diwali be free from darkness and abundant with light.

Sources and Further Reading:

All about Diwali: https://www.diwalifestival.org/diwali-calendar.html

The Long History of Light and Science: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak7GB74Qlug

Biography and Resources for Ibn Al-Haytham: https://www.ibnalhaytham.com/discover/who-was-ibn-al-haytham/

Why Some of Us Love a Scary Movie (and Some of Us Watch from Between our Fingers)

It’s spooky season! When you watch a horror movie, do you watch it from the gaps between your fingers spread over your eyes?  Or are you the type to keep your eyes open and cheer for every gruesome and gory splatter?  Why do we like scary movies and stories at all?  Or for that matter, why do we put ourselves through things like haunted houses, eating super-hot chilis, and skydiving?  The science of psychology, aided by recent advances in brain imaging, has some biological explanations for why we seek thrills and chills. 

On the surface, we have what is termed a “hedonic paradox” here.  If humans generally tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, why do we sometimes welcome, or even enjoy, emotional pain and fear?  Researchers at the Department of Biology and Clinical Psychology at the University of Jena in Germany showed test subjects horror movies while the subjects were scanned in an fMRI machine.  They discovered that people who had already scored high on a quiz to identify the personality trait of “sensation seeking” showed brain activity in brain regions associated with arousal and visual processing when looking at horror scenes, but also less brain reaction to neutral scenes.  One conclusion drawn from this study is the idea that “sensation seeking” people are just not as stimulated by or interested in normal every day reality, so they seek out thrilling or scary departures from normality. 

Another study indicates that people who seek the strange, the unusual, and the frightening may be getting an extra dopamine hit from it.  When we are scared, our brains release both dopamine and adrenaline to prepare us for the fight or flight response.  People who enjoy being scared may lack a chemical “brake” on the release and re-uptake of dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain.  That means they experience more pleasure from scary or risky experiences because their brain is receiving more dopamine. 

As for people who watch horror movies under a blanket, through their fingers, or not at all because they know they’ll have nightmares, research indicates that this behavior is more common in individuals who score higher for empathy and empathic traits.  Another study from Germany found that empathic people are more likely to automatically put themselves in the victim’s shoes and so identify with the people being threatened and hurt.  They are more likely to try to distract themselves while watching by covering eyes or hunkering down to a smaller shape.  Their skin temperature even drops, a sign of negative or unpleasant arousal. People who have less empathic traits find it easier to believe “it’s just a movie,” and open up to enjoy the thrills as they watch.  Which one are you?  Whether you are empathic, high sensation seeking, or somewhere in between, we at High Touch High tech wish you the release of many feel-good chemicals this spooky season.  Happy Halloween!

Sources and Further Reading:

MRI study on Sensation Seeking Individuals and Horror: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19585588/

The Psychology of Fright: https://theconversation.com/trick-or-treat-the-psychology-of-fright-and-halloween-horrors-49800

Fear and the Brain: https://theconversation.com/scared-out-of-your-mind-halloween-fear-and-the-brain-33261

For Sensation Seekers who are Thinking a Scary Movie Sounds Great Right About Now: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls062655785/

The Rise…and Rise…and RISE of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the Greatest Scientists in the World

Sierra Exif JPEG

How many geniuses are truly out there in the world?  Whose brain has the most elegant solution to climate change?  Whose brain holds the secret to ending aging entirely?  Where in the world is the person who has the formula for interstellar travel? And of all of these geniuses, how many of them are lucky enough to be born into a life with few obstacles to education, in circumstances that allow them to reach their fullest potential? 

The story of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the greatest scientists of all time, illustrates this issue.  Dr. Julian was a Black American, born in Alabama as the grandson of formerly enslaved people.   All of humanity today is lucky that Dr. Julian was able to overcome the roadblocks he faced to reach his true potential.   Born in 1899, Dr. Julian came into a world where Black people like himself were usually only expected to go to school until 8th grade.  A Black person going to college or even high school was almost unheard of in the United States at that time, much less a Black person getting a PhD or working in a lab as a career scientist. 

Children study corn and cotton at the Annie Davis school near Tuskegee, Alabama, 1902.

Dr. Julian loved plants from a young age, and recounted that one of his earliest memories was walking in the woods at home, savoring the beautiful plants around him – when suddenly he came upon the body of a Black man that had been lynched.  This horrifying occurrence was a feature of life for non-white people in Alabama at the time, but fortunately, Dr. Julian was also blessed to have great influences in his life that guided him and counteracted the constant weight of poverty and racial terrorism.  His parents were both teachers and deeply invested in education.  They spent their small salaries to buy him a wonderful collection of books that allowed him to escape Alabama and find freedom in the world of ideas.  Without this guidance and encouragement at a young age, Dr. Julian may never have been able to rise from his circumstances and become one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Dr. Julian was a man of great talent, and people in his community recognized it. He was at last able to find acceptance to one of the only universities that allowed  people of color at the time, DePauw University.  Arriving at school, he found he was not able to stay on campus and the lodgings he could secure would not serve him food.  His first days at college were spent walking around a hostile town, trying to find a place that would serve him something to eat.  This was just the beginning of the cruel series injustices that Dr. Julian had to fight at every turn during his academic career.  Eventually he found work as a kind of butler at a campus fraternity house.  As he worked for the fraternity, he took the remedial high school classes he missed in Alabama AND took university classes.  Again in difficult circumstances, Dr. Julian received guidance and encouragement from his mentor, Dr. William Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard took young Dr. Julian under his wing, and nurtured his growing love for chemistry.  This encouragement and support from one concerned mentor made all the difference in the world.  Dr. Julian went on to graduate as Valedictorian of his class.

However, after graduating in 1920 as Valedictorian, Dr. Julian’s road was not easy by any means.  He eventually went on to obtain a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Vienna, because no American schools would allow him to complete his Ph.D.  PhD in hand, many American schools were still reluctant to hire a person of color.  But Dr. Julian was determined to stand out, and took on huge challenges that eventually made him very successful and famous.  He became an expert in the field of “natural source chemistry,” which concentrated on unlocking the potent chemicals within plants.  Over his long career he discovered how to synthesize and produce steroid drugs on a mass scale.

His talent for elegant chemical solutions was unparalleled, and in his lifetime he synthesized medicines for glaucoma, several classes of steroids including cortisone, a miracle anti-inflammatory, and hormones like progesterone, used in treatment of miscarriage and also as a key ingredient of the birth control pill.  His scientific achievements are literally too many to contain in a single article, please see the links below for more about his incredible discoveries.  At the end of his life he was a millionaire who ran his own business synthesizing key compounds used in medicine for the masses, and yet hateful villains STILL tried to firebomb his stately mansion home.  At that time, the entire community in which he lived turned out in protest, surrounding his house with a human wall and insisting that he be able to stay in the Chicago suburb where he lived.  He stayed.

Dr. Percy Julian’s story is one of towering scientific achievement against all odds.  As anyone who has taken a steroidal medicine and felt it ease their pain knows, great scientists such as Dr. Julian are priceless gifts to society.  All though his life, however, Dr. Julian wondered what more he could have done if he hadn’t had to spend so much of his energy just trying to survive in a world so clearly bent on blocking him at every turn.  Dr. Julian was able to make it into the closed-off world of research science, and thrive there, in part because of the support he received from mentors, family, and his community.  In 2021, our world faces unprecedented challenges, and we need great scientists more than ever.  High Touch High Tech and our partner, Color of Science, believe that there is scientific genius all around us.  Together we share the goals of encouraging life-long scientific curiosity, encouraging the diversification of STEM, and providing equal opportunities for all students access to hands-on scientific experiences.  Here in 2021, we celebrate Dr. Julian’s legacy by working to assist the geniuses of the future to overcome systemic obstacles and unlock their true potential for the good of all the world. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Visit our Partners, Color of Science: https://colorfulscience.com/

An excellent documentary on Dr. Julian, highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSq__sdYNNk

In-depth exploration of Dr. Julian’s work in Chemistry: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html

An overall biography: https://greatblackheroes.com/science/percy-julian/

Happy Indigenous People’s Day! Time for a Paradigm Shift.

October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once known as Columbus Day.  Why celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead?  There’s just so much more to celebrate! For starters, 529 years in the Americas is a mere blip on the radar.  If you want impressive numbers, how about FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS of surviving and thriving in the wildly diverse, super-challenging environments of the Americas? Sailing up somewhere with guns and armies and “conquering” it is easy mode. Walking (or paddling, as new science suggests) into the Americas with just stone tools and small bands of resourceful people, then managing to populate the entire continent, now that’s an accomplishment. 

In this undated photo, an Indigenous American family smiles for the camera

Indigenous people in the Americas or wherever they are found on earth are, and have always been, absolute masters of ingenuity, craft, courage, and resourcefulness.  For these reasons, among so many others, we celebrate them today.

Dignity,” a monumental sculpture in South Dakota, by Claude Lamphere. Photo: KlemdyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as we are re-writing the old narrative of Columbus Day, recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics are re-writing an old narrative of when the first Indigenous people arrived in the Americas, and how they arrived.  Narrow views are expanding dramatically, and what they are revealing is a world that is older, richer, and much more complex than was once believed. 

A powwow dancer, Milwaukee, 2008. Photo:
CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Clovis First” theory was first formulated in the early 20th century, and rigorously defended as orthodoxy until only recently.  Clovis First states that during the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, a  few small groups of Siberian peoples walked across a dry land bridge that connected Asia and the Americas as they were following their favorite prey, the Mammoth.  Over the next few thousand years, they gradually migrated down the entire American landmass, leaving distinctive spear points, called “Clovis Points,” as they went.  For decades, Clovis First was THE Paradigm of Indigenous migration to the Americas, and archaeologists with possible conflicting evidence were often ridiculed as crackpots.

A fanciful recreation of an ancient American mammoth hunt from a children’s book of American history, 1885.

Then came the 1997 discovery of Monte Verde, an ancient Indigenous site in Chile.  Tools and artifacts found there were showing dates one thousand years before Clovis!  Monte Verde indicated the old picture was not complete, and that people were living in South America long before the Clovis arrival.  It also raised an interesting possibility that the population of the Americas was something that may have happened by people paddling down the coasts in canoes or other watercraft.  So much for the on-foot, on-land, single-origin paradigm of Clovis First?  Defenders of Clovis First hung on and subjected Vanderbilt University archaeologist Tom Dillehay to years of rigorous examination before the discovery was accepted as fact.

Tlingit women in their canoes, c. 1900, Alaska

Then came the incredible discovery at the Tapper site in Savannah, Georgia.  In 2004, after many years of very careful and methodical excavation, a team lead by Dr. Al Goodyear dug below where Clovis Points had been found and discovered artifacts conclusively dated to 50,000 years ago.  Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists like Goodyear, Dillehay, and Michael Waters of the Center for the study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, an old scientific paradigm has truly changed, and Clovis First has been laid to rest.  

Aztec Dancers in Mexico City, 2018. Photo:
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As this article is being written, another set of evidence has arrived in the public eye – fossilized footprints in White Sands, New Mexico that reveal people were walking on American soil 23,000 years ago.  When the evidence is indisputable, even old, long-held ideas have to change.  According to Michael Waters, the consensus now is that the population of the Americas “was a process with people probably arriving at different times and taking different routes and potentially coming from different places.”  The door is open for new questions, new avenues of research, and new understandings that truly do justice to the complexity of the Indigenous experience.  Happy Indigenous People’s Day.  

An Inuit Mother and Child Rubbing Noses, Alaska, 1950.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Orthodoxy of Clovis First: https://bradshawfoundation.com/america/clovis_first/

The Tapper Site: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

The Paradigm Shift from Clovis First: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/native-people-americans-clovis-news?loggedin=true

The Monte Verde Site: https://anthropology.net/2008/05/08/earliest-known-archaeological-evidence-of-americans-found-in-monte-verde-chile/

The Story of an Early Challenge to CF and How it was Received: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jacques-cinq-mars-bluefish-caves-scientific-progress-180962410/

The White Sands Footprints: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/science/ancient-footprints-ice-age.html

Invisible Forces: the Unknown Mothers of Space Exploration

It’s WORLD SPACE WEEK!  This year, the theme is Women in Space.  The history of women and space exploration is a huge topic – far from being “tokens,” as some might imagine, women have been absolutely integral to space exploration.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1786, who discovered several comets…

….to the pioneering software engineer Margaret Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton wrote the navigation code that launched the Apollo 11 moon shot mission, guided it back safely, and “set the foundation for modern software” as she did so. Women have lead the way in space exploration AND its close cousin field, computer programming.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software she and her team produced for the Apollo Project, 1969

It may come as a surprise that a woman was in charge of the software engineering that lead humankind to the moon in 1969. In fact, the very word “computer” was coined to refer to the women who were doing complex calculations in the field of astronomy as far back as the late 19th century. Women first served as “human computers” at Harvard College Observatory, calculating, measuring, and cataloguing thousands of images of stars taken on glass plates. The women were considered ideal for this work because they were thought to have a “large capacity for tedium,” were proven to be meticulous and accurate, and could be paid much less than a man. However overlooked and undervalued they were then, in 2021 we celebrate the fact that the work of these computers was the bedrock of modern space exploration and modern computing as we know it.

“Pickering’s Harem,” so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).

By World War II, “computers” had become fully established at the vanguard of technology. They were a large, but secretive group of female mathematicians who painstakingly made the essential ballistics calculations that eventually allowed the Allies to win World War II. As the war ended, computers transitioned into the “space race” and with it, into modern computing. Women were deeply involved not just in space exploration but the development of the first computer hardware and software, including ENIAC, the first programmable, digital computer. The face of so much of the technology we use today is female!

The incredible contribution of women in space exploration is brought fully alive by the caption attached to this historical photo. It reads: “The women of the Computer Department at NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station are shown busy with test flight calculations. The “computers” under the direction of Roxanah Yancey were responsible for accurate calculations on the research test flights made at the Station. There were no mechanical computers at the station in 1949, but data was reduced by human computers. Shown in this photograph starting at the left are: Geraldine Mayer and Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth with Friden calculators on the their desks; Emily Stephens conferring with engineer John Mayer; Gertrude (Trudy) Valentine is working on an oscillograph recording reducing the data from a flight. Across the desk is Dorothy Clift Hughes using a slide rule to complete data calculations. Roxanah Yancey completes the picture as she fills out engineering requests for further data.”

U.S. Army Photo”, number 163-12-62. Left: Patsy Simmers (mathematician/programmer), holding ENIAC board. Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board. Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board. Right: Mrs. Norma Stec (mathematician/programmer), holding BRLESC-I board.

Although computer programming and space exploration are both seen as predominantly male endeavors today, rest assured both fields were established through the labor of women.  In fact, the first known computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace!

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, writer and mathematician, 1840. Through her work on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” she published the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine.

After the war was won these “computers” continued the hard, tedious labor of calculating the trajectory of space flight, a story recently made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.  Katherine Johnson and a team of women of color did the essential calculations for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 spaceflight, which was such a success it set the American space program on its fast path to the moon. Astronaut John Glenn was such a firm believer in the work of these women that he did not fully trust the digital calculations that were being produced my the new electric computing technology. Before his spaceflight in 1962, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.”

Katherine Johnson, mathematician and physicist, at NASA in 1966

Everywhere you look in the story of space exploration, there is a tough, brave, intelligent woman.  However, because most people think of “astronauts” when they think of space exploration, and not the army of engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians behind them, space exploration can seem like more of a boys club than it actually is. 

Some of the Perseverance Mars Rover Team at work

If you want to understand just how integral women really are to space exploration, look at the incredible team that recently launched the Mars Perseverance Rover! The Mars Perseverance Rover was one of the most thrilling and complex achievements in the entire history of space exploration. We owe a debt to the many, many unrecognized mothers of space exploration who allowed us to reach such an incredible height.

Sources and Further Reading:

Caroline Herschel: https://www.famousscientists.org/caroline-herschel/

Margaret Hamilton: https://www.space.com/34851-margaret-hamilton-biography.html

The Computers of WWII: http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/08/women.rosies.math/index.html

The Computers of Harvard and NASA: https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers/

Ada Lovelace: https://www.famousscientists.org/ada-lovelace/

The Perseverance Team: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/team/


Science begins with questions, and if science is done well, the answers to those questions, once discovered, lead to even more questions.  Where would we be if scientific thinkers from ancient times to today had not looked around and asked questions?  From the Ancient Greek Democritus asking what everything is made of, to Stephen Hawking asking what creates black holes, science is an infinite feedback loop of human curiosity. 

Sept. 28 is Ask a Stupid Question Day, but we at High Touch High Tech believe the same as your third grade teacher when we say… there are no stupid questions!  So instead, to celebrate the humble question and all it does for us, please accept this fascinating list some of science’s greatest unanswered questions, written entirely as questions.


Why, in all the vastness of space and its infinite possibilities for life, have we not yet been contacted by any alien species?  Are they all just very tiny?  Are they trapped under Ice, as on Jupiter’s moon Europa?  Is there a “great filter,”  a crucial point of survival that most Alien Civilizations do not pass?  Could Fermi’s paradox be true, and we ARE alone in this universe?


Is consciousness something that happens as a biochemical process, or is it something living organisms are built to receive?  Why is consciousness so incredibly difficult to explain?  What explains the “placebo effect,”  where people experience powerful physical healing just through belief?  Could the placebo effect indicate that consciousness is not a quality of the brain but a fundamental universal quality, like mass or gravity?


Will it be “The Big Crunch,” where everything collapses in on itself?  Will it be the “Big Chill” where everything freezes?  Perhaps it will burn up in the “Heat Death of the Universe?”  If none of those sound appealing, how about the “Big Rip” where everything tears apart?


Did it arise out of natural conditions on earth, and if so, how?  Was it perhaps delivered from space, and if it was, where did that life originate?  And while we’re at it, what is up with RNA and how it acts as both a catalyst and a mini hard drive of bio-information?  Was RNA truly the precursor to DNA?


AWM Graham at English Wikipedia
CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Isn’t it incredible that out there in the aforementioned vastness of space, there is a galaxy called LEDA (pictured above) that is shaped like a perfect rectangle?  Perhaps it was the result of two perfectly triangular galaxies colliding? 


We know a lot about how it acts, and its obvious role in the universe, but what IS this force?  Why is it so weak in comparison to say, nuclear force or magnetism?  If other known forces have opposites, than what is the opposite of gravity, and why does gravity only pull?


Goldstein lab – tardigrades
CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How can they live so long without water?  How do they survive temperatures from -328 to 304 F?  Even with our most elaborate gene sequencing, how is it that we still don’t know which phylum they belong to?  What’s your guess – are they insects, worms, or crustaceans?  Or did they come from the vastness of space?  Could THEY be the aliens we’ve been missing all along, trying to contact us? 

And with that question, we’re back where we began.  Science begins with questions, and if science is done well, the answers to those questions, once discovered, lead to even more questions.