Blog seven

It’s time to raise a glass for Clair Cameron Patterson, Grace Hopper and Ignaz Semmelweis.

And how about a shout out to Stanislav Petrov, without whom none of use would be here. And one for Aryabhata, whose contributions were singular.

Never heard of them? That’s not unusual. Each new generation can barely name its own heroes, let alone those of the past.

It is the nature and immensity of the human experience that make it impossible to remember, let alone honor all the special people through history. Forget about individuals, most of us know little about such world-changing events like the Crimean War, the causes of World War I or even many of the details of the Vietnam War.

But in their time, these people and others shaped the world. There are surely people among us now who will likewise change the landscape in amazing ways. And they will be among our children and grandchildren and for as long as people are here.

The people who shape destiny followed the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”

Who knows what arbitrary factors go into becoming a figure of history? In no special order, let’s blow off the historical dust and take a snapshot of a few of these incredible and yet, largely unknown people. Gleaned from various accounts, they include but are not limited to:

Scientist Clair Cameron Patterson played a major role in eliminating lead from gasoline. Beginning in 1965, he worked against heavy criticism to draw the public’s attention to the increased level of lead in the atmosphere.

Finally, in 1986, the US Public Health Service banned lead from all standard, consumer, and automotive gasoline. By the 1990s, lead levels in the blood of the Americans dropped by almost 80 percent.

Oh, and Patterson also was the first to calculate the age of the Earth in 1956, which he determined to be 4.55 billion years.

Grace Hopper could be the most important person in the history of information technology. Hopper invented the compiler which helps to turn code into software. She was the first to realize that the computer could be more than just a machine to calculate numbers. Her work on the compiler led to the inception of the COBOL language.

Ignaz Semmelweis is particularly relevant in the time of coronavirus. While working in maternity wards in the 19th century, Semmelweis discovered that washing hands decreased the mortality rate by 90 percent. His findings helped bring down the mortality rate to below 1 percent.

Semmelweis died in an asylum in 1865, years before his findings were generally accepted in the medical community.

Nuclear war was averted on Sept. 26, 1983, by Russian notification officer Stanislav Petrov, hardly a household name. While on duty, Petrov noted an alert received from the nuclear early-warning system that the U.S. had launched seven nuclear missiles towards the Soviet Union.

Petrov had the authority to launch missiles against the U.S. but he didn’t because he thought the the warning system might be was faulty. And he was right. The Soviet anti-missile system incorrectly had recognized a reflection from the sun off the clouds as a missile.

And the list would be woefully incomplete without talking about Fritz Haber.

Haber was a German Jew who invented a way to extract Nitrogen from the air. His invention revolutionized the manufagure of fertilizer which is critical for food production around the world.

Going back much further in history, let’s examine the exploits of Brennus, among the most powerful military leaders of his time.

As chieftain of the Senones in the 4th century B.C., Brennus led his army of Gauls and sacked the city of Rome. It was the first and only time the Roman empire was occupied by a non-Roman until the empire’s fall in 410 A.D.

Thales of Miletus is considered to be the world’s first philosopher. Before Thales, the belief was that the gods were the source of everything.

Thales tried to explain the world and the heavens in non-supernatural terms. Unlike the so-called scientists that preceded him, Thales was the first to consider the world through a rational lens and not myths of the gods.

One of my favorite unknowns is Aryabhata who lived from 476 to 550. He was an Indian astrologer and mathematician, who is believed to have invented the concept of “zero” and narrowed down the value of pi to four decimal places.

Oh, and Aryabhata determined the circumference of the earth to 99.8 percent of its actual circumference and he rejected the flat-earth theory and was studying the earth’s rotation.



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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer