10 Game-Changing Hispanic Scientists You Didn’t Learn About In School

Ellen Ochoa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Ellen Ochoa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many of the greatest Hispanic scientists are people you never learned about in school. From groundbreaking biologists and physicists to innovators in the fields of medicine, botany, and environmental studies, here are 10 game-changing Hispanic scientists you should know about.

1. CARLOS JUAN FINLAY

Today, the world recognizes Cuban doctor and scientist Carlos Juan Finlay as a pioneer in the study of yellow fever. But back in 1881, when Finlay first presented his extensive research suggesting that mosquitoes transmitted the disease to Havana’s Academy of Sciences, he became a laughingstock. According to Finlay’s son, the speech was greeted with initial silence, followed by “universal ridicule.” It took another two decades before Finlay’s hypothesis became widely accepted. During that time, Finlay didn’t give up on his research. Instead, he spent those twenty years refining his theory, breeding mosquitoes, and conducting hundreds of tests to support this theory.

2. MARIO J. MOLINA

The first Mexican-born scientist to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Mario Molina discovered the serious environmental threat posed by chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs). Along with fellow chemist Sherwood Rowland, Molina found that CFCs—chemicals commonly used as refrigerants, and colloquially known as Freon—released into the atmosphere were contributing to ozone depletion.

3. ELLEN OCHOA

In 1993, astronaut Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space. She first served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, where she and a team of astronauts studied the Earth’s ozone layer, then returned to space three more times, spending nearly 1000 hours in orbit. Today, Ochoa, who holds NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, serves as the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

4. CÉSAR MILSTEIN

Nobel Prize winning biochemist César Milstein opened new doors in the diagnosis and treatment of disease with his 1975 study on monoclonal antibodies. Milstein and his team developed a technique for the unlimited production of monoclonal antibodies, a type of antibody made by identical immune cells. Thanks to Milstein’s work, monoclonal antibodies are now used in everything from diagnostic tests to the treatments of several autoimmune diseases.

5. FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA

Astrophysicist France A. Córdova is the director of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that develops programs to advance all fields of scientific discovery. She was nominated for the position in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Before she spent her days overseeing America’s science and scientific education programs, Córdova conducted important research on x-ray and gamma ray sources, accretion discs, and black holes, publishing more than 150 scientific papers. Back in 1993, she also became the first woman to hold the position of NASA Chief Scientist.

6. YNES MEXIA

Mexican-American botanist Ynes Mexia discovered two new plant genera and 500 new plant species—and she didn’t even start collecting plants until she was 51 years old. Born in 1870 in Washington D.C. to a Mexican diplomat father, Mexia spent many years as a social worker before enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley and discovering her passion for botany. In the 1910s and 1920s, she traveled thousands of miles around Mexico, South America, and Alaska, collecting some 145,000 plant specimens in just 13 years. Today, 50 plant species are named for her.

7. JUAN M. MALDACENA

Born in Buenos Aires in 1968, physicist Juan M. Maldacena studies the relationship between quantum gravity and quantum field theories. Currently a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Studies, he has been awarded the Fundamental Physics Prize (2012) and appeared on the “Einstein’s Dream” episode of PBS’s Big Ideas. Maldacena’s research on the duality of conjecture was so groundbreaking, the participants of a 1998 string theory conference wrote a song to honor him called “The Maldacena” (sung and danced to the tune of “The Macarena.” It was the 1990s, after all). While much of Maldacena’s work is tough reading for non-physicists, he has also written several explanations of his work on quantum theory for general audiences, including a popular 2007 Scientific American article tantalizingly entitled “The Illusion of Gravity.”

8. ALBERT BAEZ

Father of singers Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña, Mexican-American physicist Albert Baez was the co-inventor of the X-ray reflection microscope. Though he created the device, which allows scientist to examine living cells, in 1948, it’s still considered a crucial scientific tool to this day. A pacifist, he refused a series of defense industry positions during the Cold War arms race, instead conducting research and teaching physics at the University of the Redlands, Baghdad University, MIT, and Harvey Mudd College. 

9. HELEN RODRÍGUEZ TRÍAS

Born in New York City in 1929, Puerto Rican-American pediatrician and healthcare advocate Helen Rodríguez Trías helped improve access to public health services for women and children in both the United States and Puerto Rico. She was the first Hispanic president of the American Public Health Association as well as a founding member of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, an organization that fought against the practice of forced sterilization. In 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS. 

10. TED TAYLOR

Nuclear physicist Ted Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1940s and 1950s, where he helped design small nuclear weapons and reactors, as well as the Super Oralloy Bomb, which was the largest pure fission bomb ever detonated. While detonating a test bomb in the Nevada desert, Taylor once suavely lit a cigarette off of the blast using a parabolic mirror.

After observing the damage nuclear weapons could do, Taylor ultimately had a change of heart. He went on to serve as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where he worked to develop safeguards against the use of nuclear weapons. “He was ten or twenty years ahead of the rest of us,” Freeman Dyson, famed physicist and Taylor’s colleague, once said. “I think he is perhaps the greatest man that I ever knew well. And he is completely unknown.”

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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The Meteoric Rise—and Tragic Fall—of NASA's Skylab

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On May 14, 1973, NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station. It fell to earth six years later, burning up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979.

Skylab itself was a heavily modified third stage of a Saturn V rocket—the same system we used to send Apollo missions to the moon. The station was huge, measuring more than 80 feet in length, with a 21-foot diameter. During launch, Skylab 1 suffered major damage to its solar array, which delayed the launch of the Skylab 2 crew (originally intended to launch the day after Skylab itself reached orbit). The Skylab 2 mission was modified to include repair work to the solar power system and installation of a solar heat shield, as the original one was lost during launch. The Skylab 2 crew launched on May 25, 1973.

The Skylab missions resulted in new information about long-term space habitation (including an awesome space shower). The first crew spent 28 days in space; the second crew more than doubled that at 59 days; and the final crew (Skylab 4) spent 84 days up there. That last record was not broken by an American for two decades. Skylab also focused on solar science, Earth science, and microgravity experiments.

Skylab was something of a bridge between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Indeed, Skylab was supposed to be serviced (and its orbit boosted) by the first Shuttle, but it wasn't ready in time. Skylab's orbit decayed, eventually causing it to disintegrate and fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean on July 11, 1979. Chunks of the station made a bit of a fireworks display streaking through the atmosphere, and ultimately littered a swath of Australia. No injuries were reported from the falling debris, though media coverage of the reentry was intense.

Here's a short NASA documentary on Skylab, explaining the story of the station. Have a look:

If you'd like to relive the launch, here's live TV coverage from that day:

And if you'd like to learn more about its crash, and what it taught NASA moving forward, watch this:

This story has been updated for 2020.