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Despite computers barely being a thing when she was born, Valerie Thomas knew that she was cut out for the tech world, pushed until she got there, and contributed to some hugely important technologies that many of us could not live without.

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Sources:
https://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/article/a-face-behind-landsat-images-meet-dr-valerie-l-thomas/
https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/valerie-thomas
https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/robinlindeenblakeley/?page_id=76
https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/valerie-thomas-1943/
https://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/stem-career-connections/meet-dr-valerie-l-thomas-landsat-image-processing-specialist

Images:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NASA_photo_of_data_scientist_Valerie_L._Thomas.gif
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/south-america-telecommunication-satellite-orbiting-earth-gm452168783-25459270
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holmes_Hall,_Morgan_State_University,_1700_E._Coldspring_Lane,_Baltimore,_MD_21251_(34331315795).jpg
https://www.flickr.com/photos/usgeologicalsurvey/17165153732
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4745
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZx1xmNGcXI&ab_channel=NASAGoddard
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valerie_L._Thomas_standing_with_a_stack_of_early_Landsat_Computer_Compatible_Tapes.jpg
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/landsat/overview/index.html
https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/first-images-from-landsat-9-detroit-and-lake-erie
https://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/article/nasa-usgs-landsat-9-passes-review-now-operational/
https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/40-years-of-nasa-spinoff/crop-forecasts
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/reflection-of-light-on-concave-mirror-gm1360657096-433593427
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6NqaDxi2KY&ab_channel=BruceYeany
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_du_Clos_Luc%C3%A9_-_Holograms_of_the_Cardinal_of_Aragon_and_Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_20180501_PvE_(Q1122731).jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DNA_model_Projected_By_Handmade_Pyramid_Hologram.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pythagoras_Award_Hologram.jpg
https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/7a/9f/29/62eab5238d37fe/US4229761.pdf
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/abstract-graphic-world-map-illustration-on-blue-background-big-data-and-networking-gm1294021851-388180453
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/group-of-unrecognisable-international-students-having-online-meeting-gm1300822108-393025975
This episode is sponsored by Ekster.

Ekster’s mission is to make people’s daily lives easier and that starts with their reimagined wallet that’s easier to use and harder to lose. Click our link in the description for 5% off your order. [♪ INTRO] When Valerie Thomas was born in Baltimore in 1943, it’s likely no one thought they were looking at one of the great future computer programmers of the next generation.

At least, that’s not how most people were thinking of girls at the time, and especially Black girls. Also, computers were kind of barely a thing. But from a young age, Thomas knew that she was cut out for the tech world.

So she pushed until she got there. And throughout her career, she contributed to some hugely important technologies that many of us could not live without. Her work helped make it possible for us to surf the internet, download images from space, and even forecast global harvests.

But back in the 1940s and ’50s, it wasn’t exactly looking like a future in tech was in the cards for Thomas. She was interested in electronics, but at home and at her all-girls school, she got a clear message that the sciences were not for girls. It wasn’t till college that things started to change.

After high school, Thomas studied physics at Morgan State University, where she was one of just two women in her major. And she did so well that right out of college she landed a job with NASA as a data analyst. This was 1964, so up until this point, Thomas, like many people, had only seen computers in science fiction movies.

And now she was going to be using computers to analyze data for NASA. Not just any data, either. Several years into Thomas’s career, she began working on NASA’s famous Landsat program.

The program was designed to let us see Earth from space, with the help of a series of satellites snapping pictures from orbit. The idea was that with continuous images of the whole globe, scientists would be able to monitor climate, agriculture, water resources, and a ton of other things that help sustain humans and other life on our planet. But downloading an image from space was not as simple as you might think given how common it is today.

This was the first time we were getting such detailed satellite images of Earth, and each snapshot contained a lot of data. That is where Thomas came in. She helped develop the software that let scientists decode data and translate computer gibberish into something humans could understand.

And she herself became a sort of interpreter, helping researchers less versed in computer science understand the connection between digital data from space and a visual image. This was huge. And as the Landsat mission took off, it kicked off a whole new era of Earth science.

Researchers of all disciplines could draw on detailed data about Earth’s resources, ecosystems, and geology. Some of the images Thomas helped develop were even used to predict crop yields around the globe. And the mission is still active today.

But Thomas shifted gears in the mid-1970s. In 1976, she became interested in how concave mirrors reflect images. In particular, she noticed that concave mirrors produce images that appear in front of the mirror.

As opposed to regular flat mirrors, which produce images that look like they’re inside the mirror. For instance, if you have an upside-down light bulb in front of a concave mirror, it can produce the image of a right-side-up bulb directly above it. You have to view the mirror head on to see the illusion, but it will appear to be well in front of the mirror.

This all has to do with where light rays converge as they bounce off the curved surface of the concave mirror. And because of where the image appears, the reflections from concave mirrors tend to look real. So Thomas started wondering if it would be possible to transmit a 3D illusion like this.

It would be like transmitting a hologram, but without the need for all the fancy, expensive technology that holograms required. Holograms were new in the 1970s, and they were possible thanks to the invention of lasers. But while hologram technology existed, it wasn’t really practical.

So Thomas came up with an alternative. She invented what she called the illusion transmitter, which she patented in 1980. It was a device that detected a 3D illusion on one end, channeled it through a cable or even wirelessly, and reproduced it using a concave mirror on the other end.

She hoped to use this invention to create 3D TV, and while that hasn’t made it to our households yet, it could in the future. The illusion transmitter might also be used in other ways, for instance, as a tool for surgeons to look inside the body. Thomas accomplished all this in just the first 16 years of her career.

And then she pivoted again. She went on to become a manager for NASA’s Space Physics Analysis Network, also known as SPAN. The name might not sound familiar to you, but it was basically a mini version of the internet.

It connected scientists all over the world on a single network, using some of the same technologies that are behind the internet today. And Thomas’s team developed it. It was a game-changer for scientists in the ’80s, who could communicate and share data with collaborators all over the world in real time.

But its impact went way beyond that: Over the next decade, NASA’s internet evolved, and it helped bring about the internet as we know it today. Thomas retired from NASA in 1995, but over her three-decade career, her work had an impact on our whole planet. In more than one way.

Computers might have seemed like science fiction to her when she started out, but by the end of her career, she had used them to help turn science fiction into reality. Innovations like Dr. Thomas’s make our lives easier.

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