2017 has claimed one more badass female scientist. What a jerk. This time the victim was Mildred Dresselhaus, known to many as the “queen of carbon science”. Millie, as she was known to friends, was born to immigrant parents and grew up in the Bronx smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. She played violin as a child, which introduced her to the upper echelons of New York society. This was how she first realized that girls could go to college and become academics.
She sailed through the admissions exam and through to graduation of her math and science based high school, and began her college career at Hunter College. It was here that she met Rosalyn Yalow, future Nobel Laureate, who convinced her to pursue physics instead of teaching. While pursuing her physics Ph. D. at the University of Chicago, she became friends with Enrico Fermi. I’m always amazed how small the physics community was at that time.
After receiving her Ph. D she began her 57 year association with MIT. Of course everything she had done before was cool and all, but this is the point when I personally think she did her most interesting work, and it’s also where her nickname comes from.
Let’s talk about buckyballs. No, I don’t mean the tiny magnetic toys, although I would gladly talk about those some other time. (Apparently they were banned for two years, but now are available for purchase again. The more you know!) I mean their namesake. What I’m talking about is also known as Buckminsterfullerene, so you understand why I’m going to stick to “buckyballs”. They’re also known as “fullerenes”. Imagine a tiny soccer ball, made up of carbon atoms. Carbon is a weird element. In one configuration, it is the lead that we put in our pencils. In another configuration, it is a diamond. Buckyballs are yet another configuration, but one that people didn’t really know what to do with.
Enter Dr. Dresselhaus. She came up with the idea that they could be elongated, into what we now call carbon nanotubes. And thus, another field was born. Carbon nanotubes are hot science right now. They are more than a hundred stronger than steel, but only a sixth as heavy. Currently they’re being used as structural reinforcement, but there are people looking into using them as drug delivery methods, water purification, body armor, and even a possible space elevator.
Luckily, unlike many female scientists, her contributions have not gone unnoticed. She has been given the National Medal of Science, Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Enrico Fermi prize and many, many others. Just a few weeks ago, GE ran an ad suggesting that scientists should be treated like celebrities, with her as the star. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it was a real tear jerker. Well, I’m off to find some electronic device to name after her.