Scientists Born in August

Louis Leakey (August 7, 1903) was a famous Kenyan anthropologist who won the 1964 Richard Hooper Medal. Leakey did most of his research work in Africa, he and his wife Mary, discovered the fossils of three hominid ancestors. His research was important and seminal for the study of human evolution. He showed that humans evolved in Africa and far earlier that what was believe at the time. Mary found part of the fossil of Paranthropus boisei, now classified as a 1.75 million years old Autralopitecus. Louis proposed that the fossil, Homo habilis, found by Mary was a contemporary of Australophitecus. This has very controversial at the time but with time enough evidence was gathered and showed that this was indeed the case. The two other hominid fossils discovered by Leakey were Proconsul africanus, a common ancestor of humans and apes, and Keniapithecus a hominid with links to humans and apes. Leakey wrote several scientific articles and books, influencing and promoting interest in the study of the evolution of man. He also was instrumental in promoting the study of great apes’ behavior as a way to understand early hominid evolution. He encouraged Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Biruté Galdikas in their study and research on animal natural behavior.

William Bateson (August 8, 1861) was a famous English biologist who invented the term “genetics”. He was an ardent Darwinian evolutionist, most of his career was centered on looking for the connection between genetic variation and the environment. He undertook extensive hybridization experiments with plants and butterflies, trying to get statistical ratios that would reveal the Laws of inheritance. Eventually he read Mendel’s papers when he was on the train going to a conference on hybridization. He become an advocate for Mendel’s work and corroborated and extended Mendel’s experiment to animals, mainly poultry. Bateson also found the phenomena of linkage, when two characteristics are inherited together due to the fact that they reside in the same chromosome. He became the first professor of genetics at the University of Cambridge, England. He published several books on genetics.

Roger Penrose (August 8, 1931) was a famous English physicist and relativist. In conjunction with Stephen Hawking, proposed that the center of a black hole forms a singularity (point) that has infinity mass on zero volume. He developed the Penrose diagram, that allows to map the areas of space-time around the black hole and find out the effects of gravitation on objects approaching the black hole. Later he became interested on consciousness and the relationship to quantum mechanics. He wrote several influencing technical and popular books like “The Road to Reality” in 2004.

Jean Piaget (August 9, 1896) was a famous Swiss developmental psychologist and zoologist. Early in is career he published papers on sparrows (as a teenager) and mollusks. Then at university, he became interested on psychoanalysis. His most important work was on studying the cognitive development of children. Piaget wanted to answer the question of how knowledge grows. He thought that children learn different from adults because learning is a progressive construction of logical structures. The constructions made by children are less powerful than those of adults, as children grow these constructions become more concrete and powerful. Children are able to grow this process via the interaction of biological maturation and the environment. His contribution to psychology and education has been crucial to our current knowledge of how people learn.

Frederick Sanger (August 13, 1918) was an English biochemist. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry twice, in 1958 for determining the structure of insulin and in 1980 for determining the base sequence of nucleotides. Sanger was interested on decoding the molecular structure of proteins; he devised a method to read the linear position of amino acids in the important medical protein insulin. Before his contribution to this field, it was believed that the order of amino acids in proteins was random. Later, when the three dimensional structure of DNA was revealed, he set to applied his knowledge of sequencing proteins to sequencing nucleotides, RNA and DNA. He developed the ‘dideoxy’ technique to sequence DNA, starting the genomic revolution of the 20th century. His technique was used to sequence the human genome and opened the doors to the current genetic engineering apogee.

Vera Rubin (August 23, 1928) was a famous American scientist who provided groundbreaking evidence for the existence of dark matter in the universe. She measured the rotation speed of about 60 spiral galaxies and found that those in the outer region of galaxies spun twice as fast as the ones closer to the inner regions. She proposed that the most reasonable explanation was the existence of dark matter. Her contributions were not accepted at the time, perhaps because of her sex. The concept of the existence of dark matter was know 50 years earlier, the observation that there is not enough matter in the starts of a galaxy to prevent it form breaking apart, so there must be matter that we can not see ‘dark matter’. Rubin was a relentless advocate for women in science. In 1981 she was admitted to the National Academy of Sciences.

Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870) was a famous Italian educator, who originated an educational system that focus of the believe that children have a creative potential that need to be nurtured and that each child need to be treated as an individual. She received her medical doctor degree and started working at a psychiatric clinic where she became interested in educational problems of intellectual disabled children. As her method was successful, she opened her first school for small children and extended it to normal children. She believed that if children are supplied with specific materials and schools set up situations conducive to learning, this would allow children to develop their natural interest for learning. Self-direction and individual initiative is the hallmark of her educational technique. She took her ideas all over Europe and United States; these days there are many schools based on her methods and bear her name.