When Shirley Ann Jackson was in elementary school in the 1950s, she would prowl her family’s backyard, collecting bumblebees, yellow jackets and wasps. She would bottle them in mayonnaise jars and test which flowers they liked best and which species were the most aggressive. She dutifully recorded her observations in a notebook, discovering, for instance, that she could alter their daily rhythms by putting them under the dark porch in the middle of the day. The most important lesson she took away from these experiments was not about science but compassion. “Don’t imprison any living thing for very long,” she says in a mellow drawl that belies her reputation as a lightning-fast thinker and influential physicist. “I have never been a fan of dead insect collections.”
Jackson came of age during the civil-rights movement. She was valedictorian of her graduating class at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., in 1964 and went on to study particle and high-energy physics. In 1973 she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D.