Why Monkeys Don’t Build Rockets

  • In 2016 there was a loose gorilla onboard the International Space Station that chased around the astronauts. Turns out it was astronaut Scott Kelly in a gorilla costume pulling a prank on his colleagues.Although there have been chimpanzees in space… research shows they won’t be building rockets, or sneaking onboard, anytime soon.

    Andrew Whiten helped me understand this, and he knows a thing or two about chimpanzees and humans. He’s an Emeritus Professor at St. Andrews in the UK and he does fascinating research on the social behavior of non-human primates.

    Interesting work, especially since scientists have traditionally considered the chimp to be our closest living relative – with a genetic difference from humans of about 1.2%

    In one of his groundbreaking research projects, Whiten and his researchers went to South Africa and studied 109 monkeys in the wild.

    The monkeys were in four different groups, and his team of researchers gave each group two trays filled with corn. In one of the trays the corn was dyed blue, and in the other tray the corn was dyed pink.

    For two of the groups, the blue corn was made to taste bitter, and for the other two groups the pink corn was made to taste bitter. In each case, the respective corn was soaked in bitter aloe leaves.

    Within a short period of time, the monkeys all learned to completely ignore the bitter-tasting corn.

    Four months later, after 27 little baby monkeys were born, the monkeys were again given the blue and pink corn – although this time none of the corn was bitter.

    The adult monkeys all still avoided the color that previously tasted bitter. Even more surprising, the infant monkeys only ate the same corn as their mother’s, although they had never even tasted or even actually knew there was such a thing as bitter corn.

    Furthermore, during the time that the researchers were conducting the study, ten adult male monkeys migrated from one of the groups to a different group that preferred the other color of corn. And 70% of those adult males, quickly adopted the behavior of their new group, and switched to eating the new preferred color.

    Fortunately, at least some humans are more independent thinkers, and remain unswayed by social influences.

    Yvonne Brill was one such person.

    Brill was born in Canada in 1923 and, perhaps because her parents didn’t graduate high school, Yvonne recalled, “Education wasn’t high on the agenda.”

    Brill enjoyed learning and did well in high school. Despite her acument, she said, “None of the teachers particularly encourage me. We had a male teacher for physics who just felt that women would never get anywhere.”

    Even the minor encouragement she received was misguided. The high school principle, wanted her to go to a one-year preparatory teaching school after high school and get her teaching certificate so she could teach. She laughed when she remembered the advice, “And that just didn’t sit well with me. I just felt I had more enterprise than that.”

    So she went to the University of Manitoba, and since at that time the university didn’t allow women into their engineering program, she graduated in math and chemistry at the top of her class at the age of twenty.

    Upon graduation she left for California and went to work for Douglas Aircraft on the design of the first American satellite. And simultaneously went to the University of Southern California in the evenings and got her Master’s degree in Chemistry.

    Yvonne Brill was one of the first women working in rocket science!

    She worked tirelessly, despite the challenging jobs and occasional criticism. When Brill got home at night, she fed her children and put them to bed. And then she would burn the midnight oil on an idea she had for a new type of rocket engine.

    After years of after-hours work, calculating with a slide rule over the kitchen table in the wee hours of the night, Brill invented something called the hydrazine resistojet rocket engine. The rocket engine was more fuel efficient and offered increased performance. She patented the design in 1967.

    Her engine concept was adopted first by one company and then another, and eventually became a standard within the rocket industry.

    Brill’s work contributed to the first weather satellite as well as rocket designs that were used on moon missions. She received numerous awards in her lifetime, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation presented to her by President Barack Obama.

    Despite Yvonne Brill’s incredible efforts and accomplishments, she always remained humble. “It wasn’t that I was so great, I was just in the right place at the right time, which was really my good fortune.”

    Actually, it seems more accurate that Yvonne Brill was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but didn’t let those circumstances sway her.

    Our genetics may be 98.2 percent identical to a chimpanzee’s, but the good news is that somewhere in the remaining unique 1.2%, each of us is like Yvonne Brill. And that’s all we need to build a rocket.

    So, let’s remember to try the different colored corn.

    Innovator Yvonne Brill would approve, and so would astronaut Scott Kelly in his gorilla suit.


    Tom loves building meaningful businesses and technology (with people who care). Follow him on LinkedIn. Reach him at tomtriumph.com or on Twitter @thomastriumph

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