Four Brilliant Female Scientists
Einstein, Clerk-Maxwell, Darwin… all names which instantly come to mind when thinking of science. But what this list is obviously lacking is, women. To amend for this, and to mark International women’s day, Curious Minds would like to tell you about four of our very favourite female scientists past and present who deserve much more praise for the ways in which they have contributed to science. It’s our small offer of proper representation of women in science.
On a cold day in November in the city of Vienna, Austria in 1878, Phillip and Hedwig Meitner became parents to a baby daughter, little did they know that she would go on to be one of the most important physicists of her generation.
Lise Meitner was born into a relatively well-off academic and learned Jewish family. Lise’s own scientific precocity quickly became evident to those around her when she began writing in her notebook. She quickly filled books with notes of her observations of the world around her. In particular, her studies of light and how it looked different when travelling in different media were most notable.
Despite Lise’s evident knack for the art of science, women were not allowed to pursue higher education in Vienna for the majority of the 1800s, so Lise decided to work as a teacher instead before then being able to train as a medic.
Later Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn worked together to discover the phenomenon of nuclear fission – The splitting of an atomic nucleus. Meitner and Hahn discovered that firing a neutron at another particle caused radiation to be released. This energy can be harvested and thus, the first concept of a nuclear reactor was born. This monumental discovery was later awarded the Nobel prize but Meitner, sadly yet unsurprisingly, was not credited in the award despite her playing the lead role alongside Hahn. This was not the only time Meitner was underappreciated by the scientific community, in fact, she was nominated for 49 different awards and did not win one. Today we’re posthumously awarding her a place on the Curious Minds wall of Eminent Scientists.
Emmy Noether had a similar early life to that of Meitner. She also was a young Jewish girl borne in Europe to an intellectual family. Noether studied maths earning a PhD after which she worked at the university of Erlangen where, because she was female, she received no pay for her work for 7 years. Later on she was invited by David Hilbert to work with him in Göttingen, however, the institute blocked her appointment on the grounds of her being a woman. To circumvent the university’s block, she was forced to lecture using Hilbert’s name.
Despite all the deeply unfair obstacles others put in her way, Emmy Noether would not be stopped, she defied all the odds and published papers proving Noether’s first and second theorems, both of which were essential to the future elucidation of the theorem of quantum gravity.
In 1933, due to her Jewish ethnicity Noether was prohibited from working further at the university of Göttingen. Noether had no option but to accept this ultimatum and continued to gather students to teach outside the institution until she sadly passed away in 1935. Emmy Noether battled her way to the top of her field using her striking intelligence and tenacity in the face of those who would try to stop her; a truly remarkable woman, and her achievements are still underappreciated to this day.
A personal favourite of ours, the avid environmentalist Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist. Just like Meitner and Noether, Rachel Carson showed signs of brilliance from an early age, publishing her first book at the age of ten and graduating top of her class.
Later in life Carson discovered her passion for marine biology and worked in public outreach writing about fish populations for the bureau of fisheries. Carson soon became the only provider for her family but despite the personal setbacks, continued to press on with her work publishing a number of other works on marine life. In 1945, near the closing of World War two, when everybody’s attention was on the fall of Nazi Germany, Carson uncovered the serious impacts of the pesticide DDT.
DDT is a nasty pesticide which can remain in the environment for long periods of time, bioaccumulating and biomagnifying in the tissues of the animals unlucky enough to inadvertently consume it. Accumulation of this pesticide posed a serious threat to bird populations and motivated Carson to write what would become her masterpiece : Silent Spring. Silent Sring highlighted the dangers of using certain pesticides and describes what might happen if this pesticide usage continued… a silent spring, when there are no bird songs left to be heard. A solemn image in a fantastically written book took the US by storm playing a huge part in raising awareness for environmental issues and the reduction of DDT use, despite the tiresome efforts of corporations who looked to profit from it. Before the eventual banning of DDT, Rachel Carson, after a life of passion for the environment, education of the people around her and publishing of one of the seminal environmental books passed away at the age of 56.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
The final personal favourite of ours here at Curious Minds is none other than Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, Bell developed a love for astronomy from her father’s astronomy books. She studied at the University of Glasgow earning her bachelor’s degree before earning her PhD at the University of Cambridge.
Bell became fascinated with quasars, supermassive blackholes which give off radiation while feeding on gas at the centre of galaxies. While studying these Bell noticed an anomaly in the data, a star which was pulsing at a standard rate. At first it was thought this may be an alien civilization making contact but the real reason (which is awesome but maybe not quite as awesome as aliens) was that it was a pulsar: a rotating neutron star. A pulsar emits very high energy gamma rays in two opposite directions. Therefore when the pulsar rotates as the one of the streams of radiation points at us and then subsequently points away it looks to us like flashes of intermittent radiation with a constant interval between flashes.
In 2018 Bell won the Special breakthrough prize for fundamental physics for her discovery of pulsars. She donated all $3,000,000 of the prize winnings to fund representation of ethnic-minority women in physics. Despite the key role she played in the discovery of pulsars, Bell did not receive credit alongside her colleagues when the discovery was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974.
Women Make Awesome Scientists
Looking through the history one thing is clear: women make awesome scientists, which is why we think it’s so important to encourage all the mothers, sisters and daughters out there to take a leaf out the book of all the female scientists who came before them and never let anything get in your way of the pursuit of knowledge; life-long learning.
Thank you for reading and have a very happy International Women’s day 2023 from the Curious Minds Team!
Photo Credits: Wikipedia