Sunday, May 4, 2008

Women of Science

This blog is about women who have achieved greatness in science and who have done so in spite of the barriers posed by the male-dominated science culture and in some cases in spite of the deliberate efforts of their male colleagues to block them, undermine them and/or take credit for their work.

Some of the women I have in mind are:

Marie Curie: The leading example, of course. I have written an earlier post about this extraordinary woman in VentureMind. She discovered two elements, radium and polonium, was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in physics, was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry and is to this day the only scientist of either gender to receive two Nobel prizes in scientific fields. If that were not enough, her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, also received a Nobel prize in chemistry.

Lise Meitner: She fled Germany when the Nazis expelled Jewish scientists from German universities in the 30's. Though in exile and by then in her 60's she continued her path-breaking work which led to the discovery of nuclear fission, sending her results back to her former Mitarbeiter, Otto Hahn, a non-Jew who remained behind in Germany. Otto took credit for her work and received a Nobel prize. Lise Meitner did not.

Emilie du Chatelet: She was a wealthy, high-spirited and somewhat scandalous Frenchwoman who was, among other distinctions, Voltaire's girlfriend. Working entirely on her own, and not in a university, she translated Newton's works into French and explained them to the French.

Sonja Kowaleski: She is perhaps the least well-known of my selections. She was a fascinating and beautiful Russian aristocrat who became the leading woman mathematician of her day (she lived from 1850 to 1891). She became the pupil of Karl Weierstrass, the leading figure of his day in the mathematical field of analysis, who was then a professor at the University of Berlin. The university's senate refused to admit Sophie to Weierstrass' lectures, so he tutored her in private. She ultimately took her degree from the University of Goettingen, the valhalla of German mathematics. Weierstrass tried in vain to find her a university position in Germany, but no one was interested in having a woman mathematician on the faculty. She finally obtained a position at the University of Stockholm, and in 1888, at the age of 38, she received the coveted Bordin Prize of the French Academy of Sciences -- in effect a French version of the Nobel Prize. How did a woman receive the highest French award? The papers were submitted anonymously. The judges did not know that her paper, On the rotation of a solid body about a fixed point, was written by a woman.

Rosalind Franklin: The story of Rosalind Franklin is by now well known and she has posthumously received much of the recognition she deserves and which James Watson of The Double Helix did so much to deny her. I have earlier written a post about Watson's treatment of her. Her expert x-ray crystallography produced an incredible image (the famous Photograph 51) which showed the helical structure of DNA. The photo was illicitly shown to Watson and Crick in Rosalind's absence by her underhanded co-worker, Maurice Wilkins. Watson and Crick immediately saw that it confirmed their work, so they used it and went on to win Nobel Prizes. Rosalind in the meantime died of cancer.

Cecilia Payne: The Harvard astronomer who established that the sun is principally made of hydrogen and not of iron as all leading astronomers had previously thought. Henry Norris Russell, then the pre-eminent American astronomer, disbelieved and ridiculed her results and outrageously forced her to water down her paper by casting doubt on her own findings. Four years later, in a paper of his own, Norris grudgingly admitted that indeed stars generally did seem to be made of hydrogen. Cecilia spent her entire career at Harvard where for most of her life she was treated and paid as a lowly technical assistant to the chief astronomer, Harlow Shapley. Her Ph.D was awarded in astronomy (the first ever from Harvard in that field) and not in physics, where all other astronomy Ph.D's were awarded, because the chairman of the Physics Department, one Theodore Lyman, refused to accept a woman student. Finally, in 1956, some 30 years after coming to Harvard, she was made a professor -- the first woman professor in Harvard's history. (Harvard's history of dubious treatment of women scientists flamed to life again in 2005 when Larry Summers, then the president of the university, gave a talk in which he suggest men have more innate scientific ability than women. This gaffe ultimately led to his resignation. Selber schuld.)

Jocelyn Bell: Bell was a radio astronomer at Cambridge University who, together with her lead professor, Anthony Hewish, discovered pulsars in 1967. It was a sensational discovery, entirely unanticipated, and led to much speculation about whether pulsars were signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Hewish and his mentor, Martin Ryles, were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery, but Bell, who was actually the key member of the team who found the pulsar, was not given the prize. (She nevertheless has received many awards for her scientific work, including, ironically, an honorary doctorate from Harvard!) During most of her career Bell followed her husband around from job to job in the United Kingdom as he pursued his career at the expense of hers. She finally divorced him.

Vera Rubin: She is credited as the discoverer of dark matter, the mysterious and unseen matter which makes up most of the universe. Like Jocelyn Bell, an indeed many other women in science, she married young and spent most of her life giving up her own opportunities (one of which was, yet another Crimson irony, a graduate fellowship at Harvard College Observatory) and following her scientist husband from place to place and bearing and raising children. In 1963 she was invited to apply for telescope time at Palomar Observatory, the application for which stated "Due to limited facilities, it is not possible to accept applications from women." Nevertheless, her application succeeded and she became the first woman to be granted use of the Palomar Observatory telescope. [The public affairs officer of Palomar has recently assured me by email that the quoted exclusion of women in the application form no longer exists, but is "part of our distant past."]

[to be continued]