Brain Like Berkeley

March 2, 2021

If you’ve ever had the privilege to join us on a campus tour or online visit, you may have heard the abbreviated version of some of Berkeley’s best contributions to the world of science. Whether it’s the mention of our 16 elements on the periodic table or winning a Nobel prize for the discovery of CRISPR gene editing, we as campus ambassadors try to highlight our favorite scientific discoveries for our visitors. However, a regular tour doesn’t have enough time to get into all the facts because UC Berkeley has too rich of a history to even brush the surface. Here I try to outline some of the lesser known, but equally exciting, contributions that Berkeley has made to furthering our understanding of the world.

1. The Calvin Cycle
Melvin Calvin and co-researchers discovered the famous pathway that is an essential part of photosynthesis in plants. By adding radioactive carbon dioxide into a suspension of cells, they were able to trace how carbon distributes itself in the light and dark stages of photosynthesis. I was totally nerding out when I learned of this discovery, years after memorizing the very cycle in my high school biology class!

2. The Wetsuit
As a surfer, I’m so hyped about this 1952 invention by physicist Hugh Bradner, who discovered that neoprene was a suitable fabric for insulation from cold water. While later popularized and commercialized by legendary surfer Jack O’Neill, you can thank Bradner and UC Berkeley for the original idea!

3. Scuba Diving Tanks
On the topic of water sports, chemist John Hildebrand created the pressurized mixture of helium and oxygen that today allows SCUBA divers to descend hundreds of feet under the sea. This 1924 invention allowed divers to explore the depths of the ocean like never before, without experiencing “the bends.” Still today, one of our buildings, Hildebrand Hall, commemorates this iconic man.

4. Berkeley UNIX
Alright don’t quote me on this one because I’m not a computer expert, but Berkeley UNIX was developed by alumni Kenneth Thompson in 1969, essentially starting the revolution of open-source software. A product of Bell Labs (later AT&T and Nokia), this invention became one of the early operating systems in the very beginnings of the computer and tech industry.

5. Influenza and Polio Vaccinations
Remember a world where vaccine wasn’t a daily word that crossed our minds? Well, on top of our many contributions to the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, Berkeley biochemist Wendell Stanley was responsible for both a WWII-era polio vaccine and influenza vaccine. With the UC Virology Laboratory, his research was critical in preparing vaccines and combatting the spread of these viruses. Today, Stanley Hall is named after this revolutionary scientist.

These are some of my favorite discoveries, but even still there are so many other findings, especially beyond the sciences, that UC Berkeley is proud to claim. As a chemistry major at UC Berkeley, I can honestly say that a big draw to the university was my absolute awe when I learned of some of our scientific contributions, and I continue to geek out every time I learn about another one!

For more incredible facts, check out the link where most of these came from and enjoy!