“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” — Rosalind Franklin
Science is poetry in motion, a beautiful one at that. Over the years, Science has evolved into a sophisticated practice, exposing to us the marvels of the universe.
Science is to seek, to know, to balance, to equate, to understand, to be fair. However, history has time and again shown that even within the scientific realm, equity doesn’t, for some sad reason, fit the equation. Science has solved many mysteries and answered many questions. But in ways, it has failed to foster gender equality, at least historically, with regard to women’s achievements in the field.
Women: The unsung heroes of Science who changed the world
Born in a family going through financial problems, Marie Curie had a difficult childhood. She lost her mother at the age of twelve, which meant she had to work as a tutor to support her sister’s education. She took courses secretly from Floating University in Poland which educated women. Even though she was the top student of her class, she could not go to the University of Warsaw just because she was a woman. She later went on to pursue degrees in Physics and Mathematics.
Marie Curie definitely has to be one of the most prominent scientists the world has known. Winning a Nobel Prize in Science in a single field is a big feat. She did it twice in two different fields, Physics and Chemistry, for her work in radiation phenomenon and for the discovery of Polonium and Radium, both of which are more radioactive than the previously discovered Uranium. She published her discovery in 1896 which was a unique feat for a woman in that era.
She developed a mobile X-ray unit during the first world war. Despite facing endless sexism during her career, she still made it to the top and definitely is one of the most notable scientists known to the world.
Compared to other women scientists, Marie Curie was able leave her mark. However, many unsung women heroes of Science have lived but have been forgotten.
Caroline Herschel is one of them. Herschel was born on March 16, 1750 in the town of Hanover, Germany. She suffered from Typhus at the age of 10 which inhibited her growth. She never grew taller than four feet three inches and the ailment also affected the vision of her left eye.
As a result, her parents assumed that she would not be able to get married and thought that she would be better off if they were to train her as a house servant.
After her father’s death, her brothers invited her to join them in England to try out singing as a career. In England, one of her brothers, William Herschel, was involved in Astronomy. She was meant to support him by running chores at his house.
However, during her stay with him, she ended up on his astronomical adventures as an apprentice. William Herschel went on to discover the planet Uranus during that time. Caroline helped her brother to develop modern mathematical approach to astronomy. In 1783, Caroline discovered three Nebula and between 1786 to 1797 she discovered eight comets.
She was the first women to be awarded the gold medal of Royal Society of Astronomy and to be named honorary member of the society. She was awarded a gold medal for Science on her 96th birthday by the King of Prussia. She is known to be the first woman who was paid for her contribution to Science.
Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878. She was a smart child, specially in science and mathematics. Not surprisingly though, she wasn’t allowed to go to university being a woman. However, she joined the University of Vienna in 1901. By 1906, Meitner had a PhD for her experimental work on heat conduction. At that time, she was the second woman to get a doctorate from the University of Vienna.
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn first discovered the Nuclear Fission of Uranium. They described the process of fission, which splits the atomic nucleus of Uranium into two smaller nuclei accompanied by release of massive energy. About 50 countries utilise nuclear reactor for energy at present.
The nuclear weapons developed during World War II is based on the same process. Otto Hahn received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the “discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei”. But guess what? Lise Meitner did not. It is indeed a sad truth that her contribution was not acknowledged.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She did have a better childhood education-wise compared to other women scientists.
She began her graduate studies in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge in 1956. Working as a student under the supervision of Anthony Hewish, she helped him construct a massive radio telescope designed to monitor quasars. She went on to observe and analyse the first pulsars, which are highly magnetised rotating stars.
This was described as the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century. In 1968 issue of Nature, their findings were published causing an uproar in the scientific world. In 1974, her PhD advisor Anthony Hewish along with Martin Ryle went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. But in spite of having been the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars, she was excluded from the accolade.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchikin was a British-American astronomer born in 1900 in England. She had a good schooling and went to University of Cambridge. She completed her studies but wasn’t awarded a degree because Cambridge, one of the most prestigious universities of the world, didn’t grant degrees to women until 1948!
Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that stars are made mainly of hydrogen and helium, and established that stars could be classified according to their temperatures. However, leading astronomer of the day, Henry Norris Russell dismissed her hypothesis and asked her not to publish it.
Four years down the line, after having derived the same result by different means, he published a paper in 1929 and was solely credited for the conclusions for most part of history.
Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and an X-ray crystallographer. Born to a prominent Jewish family in London in 1920, she had a good education growing up and went on to join the University of Cambridge.
She got her PhD in 1945 and then went to Paris to work on X-ray crystallography. She came back to Kings College, London as an accomplished crystallographer, and started working on X-ray diffraction, which facilitated the discovery of double helix structure of DNA.
However, her colleague Maurice Wilkins shared the information she had discovered, without her knowledge to James Watson Francis Crick, who then went on to discovering the double helix structure of DNA with the vital information derived from the images that Franklin took.
JD Bernal called her photos the “most beautiful X-ray photos ever”. But sadly, in 1962, Watson and Crick along with Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for the historic discovery. Franklin was excluded.
Emmy Noether was a German mathematician. She made enormous contributions in mathematics and physics. Noether’s theorem is known to be one of the most significant mathematical theorems ever proved that has guided modern physics.
She was described as the most important woman in mathematics by none other that Albert Einstein. Even with that passion and intelligence, she had to tutor for seven years without pay because women were excluded from academic positions. Even later during her career, she had to lecture under a male colleague’s name because the faculty at the university objected to have a female lecturer.
STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) was no exception to sexism as were other fields such as education and politics. There have been so many other instances where women were robbed of the Nobel Prize just because of their gender. Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, Nettie Stevens are some of the other examples. Forget about the others, the most famous and prominent scientist ever, Albert Einstein, failed to credit his first wife Mileva Maric who had enormous inputs in Einstein’s work.
Ninety-five per cent of people who are reading this article might not know who Jennifer Doudna is, or who Elizabeth Blackburn is, or Katherine Freese or even who Barbara McClintock is. Everyone knows about the Apollo mission to moon, or who Neil Armstrong is, but no one knows who Margaret Hamilton is — she helped write computer codes for the command and lunar modules on the Apollo.
Science, like any other field, has been blessed with smart and intelligent women. Science is beautiful, science is poetry in motion. Science is about exploring, reaching out to the public, and applying the findings for the betterment of our civilisation and of planet Earth.
But it is sad that over and over again science fails to credit the better half of our race. I hope that our generation accredits women, who have been an integral part of the scientific community.
Science is life and life needs women, understanding which we hope more female scientists are promoted in Nepal.