Women who like science
24 March, 2010
I spent my student years studying science and later the history of science but was unaware of this day. How lovely that there is such a day, and one especially dedicated not just to someone who is Byron’s daughter (Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron) but also a pioneer scientist in her own right. It also saddens me that we still need to highlight the achievements of women in science, but coming from a science background and seeing my peers struggling to achieve equality in the workplace is a humbling experience. Saying that, I opted out of academia when perhaps I should have soldiered on for the greater good, but my muse called and I couldn’t refuse.
At school we saw a film about the search for DNA in a biology class and I was simultaneously impressed and saddened by Rosalind Franklin. I still feel that Franklin was cheated out of the Nobel Prize shared by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. But you can read about Rosalind Franklin in Nymeth’s post, so I will highlight three women whose lives and contributions interest me greatly. It’s not just the incredible scientific discoveries and achievements they have made but also the way they managed their lives while keeping true to their scientific vocation which inspires me.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a British and later American astrophysicist who studied for a short while under Arthur Stanley Eddington at Cambridge (before degrees were awarded to women) and later made the discovery that the sun was made up mainly of hydrogen. She was the first woman to get a PhD from Harvard (Radcliffe College) and later became the first female Professor of Astronomy and Head of Department. You can read about her in her autobiography Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) is a British astrophysicist whose pivotal role in the discovery of pulsars netted her supervisor Anthony Hewish the Nobel Prize (shared with Martin Ryle). As in the case of Franklin, I feel strongly that she should have shared the prize with Hewish and Ryle. However, Bell Burnell continued her pursuit of science, taught at many distinguished universities and is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford. She is one of my heroes.
Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) was an eminent mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and Voltaire’s lover. She is best known for her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French. You can read about her in David Bodanis’ Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Englightenment.
And finally, just to round off this post on a positive note, let’s not forget Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize twice: in Physics for her work on radioactivity together with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel and in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. And her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with her husband Frédéric for the discovery of artificial radiation. Incredible.