Communicator (communicator) wrote,

The Curse of Hypatia

The biology blog Pharyngula is written by Prof. PZ Myers.

I am teaching this new freshman biology course, and the last few weeks have been a survey of the history and philosophy of science ... I'm a bit uncomfortable about the absence of women in the story so far ... so I (added the following question to the exam)

15 (2 pts extra credit). Name a female scientist of any era

Question 15 was supposed to be a gimme, a really easy question that they should have answered easily, especially since we'd just had the freshman biology major mixer the night before, where they were introduced to 3 women biology faculty. I have a bunch of students who left question 15 blank, or said they couldn't think of any! Now that was depressing.

Couldn't think of any??

I mean, even the usual sexist fool can think of Marie Curie. Yeah, there was a lady scientist once.

I'm not a science historian but I can think of three really big time female scientists.

Lise Meitner. Discovered nuclear fission - so, hardly anything really, not surprised nobody remembers her.

Lynn Margulis. Discovered that the organelles within a eukaryotic cell are evolved from symbiotic colonies of organisms. As Richard Dawkins said: 'I greatly admire Lynn Margulis's sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory... I'm referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it'

So, you know, not surprising nobody has heard of her.

In the field of astronomy Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered Cepheid variable stars, which are the measuring stick of cosmology, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars.

There are some other very impressive but more contentious claims, such as that Uranus was discovered by Carolyn Herschel, and binary maths by Ada Lovelace.

If you are interested I suggest you read up on the lives of these fascinating women, and ponder the reasons why Nobel prizes were so often awarded to their male collaborators, and never to the women who made the discoveries. But if you don't have the time to do this, I think it is worth memorising this list -

Lise Meitner: Discovered Nuclear fission
Lynn Margulis: Discovered that the the cells of which we are composed evolved from symbiosis between primitive organisms
Henrietta Swan Leavitt: Discovered Cepheid variable stars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Discovered pulsars.

These are not seriously disputed claims. It's a quick and easy answer to the frequently-stated notion that women are no good at science. In fact modern science is built on the work of many brilliant men, and a small number of brilliant women. It's my belief that given opportunities and the hope of recognition, the numbers could be equal.

ETA - would be interested in your suggestions of other big names.
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