Scientists Born in November

Alfred L Wegener (November 1, 1880) was a German Meteorologist and a Geophysicist; he was also very interested in paleoclimatology. During his career he took several trips to study polar air circulation and became interested in why the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa seem to fit like a puzzle. He proposed that in the Paleozoic, 259 million years ago, all the continents on Earth were joined together in one big mass of land, which he named Pangaea. The continental drift idea proposed by Wegener said that the current position of the continents is due to the drifting apart of the continents from their position in Pangaea to their present locations. This idea was new and controversial, at the time it was believed that the Atlantic Ocean was created by the sinking of a portion of the Earth’s crust. His proposal of Continental drift explained the lock and key shape of the coasts of America and Africa, the distribution of ancient coal and glacial deposits, and the similarities of fauna and flora around the Atlantic Ocean. Wegener’s hypothesis was not accepted mainly because he did not have a mechanism for how the continents would drift. His idea was that the continents drifted on top of the ocean floor, this was not quite correct. Now we know that the Earth crust is formed of plates that fit like a puzzle, called the tectonic plates. The oceanic and continental plates both drift in top of the mantle. Wegener’s model of the Continental Drift was eventually accepted because of several other subsequent sources of evidence, like paleomagnetism, seismology, and marine geology supported his proposal and refined the model of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Marie Curie (November 7, 1867) was a Polish Physicist and the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes, one for Physics in 1903 and the other for Chemistry in 1911. She moved to the Sorbonne in Paris to study Physics and work in the laboratory. A few years after the discovery of radioactivity, Curie set to analyze many chemical compounds for radioactivity and found that thorium also have the same characteristics as the already known element uranium. She noticed that the uranium ore she was working with was a lot more radioactive that uranium metal and proposed that perhaps other more radioactive elements may exist within the ore. This work led her to discover the radioactive elements polonium and radium, for which Marie, her husband Pierre, and Becquerel received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Later in 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry because of her work on radium. She obtained a pure enough sample of metallic radium so that its molecular weight could be measured. In addition, her work was the seed for other important scientific advances like studies in using radioactivity for the treatment for cancer and the inspiration to more discoveries in Physics. Curie was not aware of the dangers of not using protection when working with radioactivity. She died of Leukemia, cancer to the blood, a disease known to be caused by penetrating radiation.

Edmond Halle (November 8, 1656) was a British Astronomer and a Mathematician. His most influential contribution is that he calculated the exact orbit of the comet that bears his name, Halle’s comet. Earlier in his career, using a telescope, he compiled a catalogue of stars in the Southern hemisphere. This work was impressive because it describes the position, latitudes, and longitudes of 341 starts. He also observed the transit of mercury across the sun and noticed that some starts have become fainter since described in antiquity. Halle is also remembered for his friendship with Sir Isaac Newton, he promoted and persistently guided the publication of Newton’s work. Halle and other scientists including Newton, Wren, and Hooke were working in developing a mechanical explanation for planetary movement. After Newton published his results on celestial mechanics, Halle moved to study comets. He described the parabolic orbits of 24 comets and accurately predicted the time of return and orbit of the now know Halle’s comet.

Rita Rossi Colwell (November 23, 1934) is an American Oceanographer and Microbiologists. During her early scientific career she focused on studying the presence of bacteria in the Chesapeake Bay, specifically the agent of cholera, vibrio cholerae. Colwell also did extensive work abroad showing a correlation between outbreaks of cholera and excess levels of nutrients in the warmer oceans in Blangadesh. Among several of her achievements, Colwell and her collaborators designed a simple water filtration method as a way to purify water from the microbes associated with cholera in poverty-stricken countries. The implementation of this cheap and effective preventive measure led to 50% reduction of deaths due to cholera. Back in the United States, she was the first woman to be the president of National Science foundation (NSF), where she promoted science education, the advancement of women and minorities in science, and spearheaded initiatives such as nanotechnology, bi0-complexity, and social and economic sciences. Colwell has also been a president of the American Association for the advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Association of Microbiology. She has written many books and science articles and is a currently a professor at the University of Maryland.

Earl W. Sutherland (November 29, 1915) was an American Pharmacologist, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1971. He received his medical doctor degree in 1942 from Washington University, where in addition to medicine, he engaged in biochemical research and set the ground for his later and more significant work. Sutherland became Chairman of the Pharmacology Department at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. While in this institution he did research in basic biological mechanisms involving the effects of hormones in the phosphorylation of critical cell components. He was interested on how signals from outside of the cell (hormones) affect the intracellular metabolism. This research led him to the isolation of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cyclic AMP). Sutherland showed that cAMP is a signaling molecule, involved in several important physiological mechanisms, specifically signal transduction from the cell membrane receptors to other parts of the cell. Sutherland received the Nobel Prize in 1971, first because of the central importance of this metabolite (cAMP) in the basic metabolism and function of the cell and its role in the release of important hormones like insulin, thyroid, steroid and anterior pituitary hormones. Second, his work opened a area of investigation on cell signal transduction between cell and inside the cell.