It’s been said a million times that art and science do not mix. Yet, we know there are tremendous benefits that can arise from the concoction of the two. Take the work of Helen Michel as just one of many examples.
Born into an evolving world of science in 1932, seven years before the start of the Second World War, Helen Vaughn Michel was exhilarated by the vast array of applications and changes brought about by the scientific advancements of the times. She became especially attracted to the chemistry after witnessing school science experiments gone awry – even failures motivated this woman! A future pioneer in such diverse fields as chemistry, geology, paleontology, plant biology, and archaeology, Michel entered the University of California at Berkeley with as much enthusiasm as an archaeologist on her first expedition – A LOT!
It was while at UC Berkeley that she first set foot into the Radiation Lab (now known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and received her first true taste of the work she had only dreamed about. Her work in the chemistry lab immediately became her life. Here she landed her first professional job, met her future husband, and conducted ground-breaking, outstanding research.
Though many may not recognize her name, Helen Vaughn Michel, with her extended expertise and interest in nuclear radioactive decay, devised (with her close colleague Frank Asaro, above) an indispensable analytical approach in determining the presence of trace elements, a now globally practiced method called “neutron activation analysis,” or NAA.
Michel’s Neutron Activation Analysis operates as follows: environmentally aging samples of relative abundance from almost any location are penetrated with neutrons, the neutrally-charged particles that have an effect on an atom’s mass and radioactivity. By attacking a sample’s atoms with neutrons, which are located in the nucleus, the existing neutrally-charged particles collide with the forcefully introduced neutrons, speeding up the radioactive process by pushing the neutrons out of the nuclei. As more neutrons fill up the atoms’ nuclei, the atoms become increasingly unstable, as the nuclear force cannot control the constant changing of charges and must release neutrons in order to reach stability. It will turn into a new element that can achieve stability. This transformation from one element to another can be monitored as well as the type of radioactive emission the nuclei release as they decompose. By following the breaking down of the isotopes of each element, you can estimate the types and amounts of all elements present in your sample. This extremely accurate measurement led Michel and her research crew to prominence and success. Her meticulous method was used in varying research applications, including extensive studies on the origins of precious stones and pottery and surveying of trace elements dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages in Mexico, Central America, South America, and Egypt. Michel also made a legendary contribution by solving the mystery of “Drake’s Plate,” a brass sign found in 1936 San Francisco that was engraved with an apparent note and signature of the renowned sixteenth century explorer Sir Francis Drake, claiming North America’s West Coast for Queen Elizabeth I; Michel proved it to be a fraud through analytical spectroscopy and the dating of its foundation.
Michel’s most famous contribution is undoubtedly her iridium analysis that helped to form the Alvarez hypothesis – the theory that a huge asteroid smacked into Earth 65 million years ago and brought hazardous fallout around the world, driving a mass extinction of at least 50% of all species, including the dinosaurs. Notable layers of the element iridium found in Earth’s crust that dated back to the Cretaceous – Paleogene Boundary (the end of the Mesozoic Era, beginning of the Cenozoic Era) proved this by illustrating that because iridium was of rare abundance on Earth, but existed in copious amounts on asteroids, the spike had to trace back to an asteroid impact. This theory is considered one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history and has not been denied by the majority of the scientific community since its founding in 1980.
Helen Vaughn Michel was the only woman among her counterparts at the lab. With all her accomplishments, she is inspiring for future women in science as we step up in stride to better our worlds around us, one element, one bone, one leaf, one print, one rock, one artifact at a time.
Written by Alana Wexler
Edited and posted by Suzie
First image: Asteroid Impact research team, left to right: Helen Michel, Frank Asaro, Walter Alvarez, and Luis Alvarez. All images courtesy of Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and used with permission.