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September 21st, 2007


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10:29 am - 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.

(41 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:trixieleitz
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:40 am (UTC)
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Rosalind Franklin.

*seethes quietly*

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From:communicator
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:44 am (UTC)
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Another excellent example, though she was a significant contributor rather than a lead discoverer. However it could be well argued that it was the structure of the system rather than her inherent qualities which cast her in the support role.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:46 am (UTC)
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I remember a few years ago looking at a list of [people responsible for something - I've completely forgotten what it was now], pointing out to my colleagues that a name was missing, and remarking "It's Rosalind Franklin all over again." None of my colleagues (male) knew who Franklin was. I tried several women friends that week, and all of them did. But what we all remembered was that she'd been overlooked in favour of Crick and Watson, so I've come to the conclusion that we remember her for feminist reasons, rather than scientific ones. Probably predictable as we're feminists not scientists, and wouldn't come up with many male names either.
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From:nostalgia_lj
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:51 am (UTC)
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Franklin, thats the one I couldn't name!
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From:hafren
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:47 am (UTC)
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Gawd 'elp us. Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Prize in chemistry 1964?

Obviously science students are as ignorant as arts ones.
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From:nostalgia_lj
Date:September 21st, 2007 09:51 am (UTC)
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*without looking*

Err... Marie Curie (cheating, I know), Margaret Thatcher? (also cheating) Err... her that did stuff with DNA. Um. Marie Curie Jr. Erm. Err.

Depressingly they very much do get passed over in favour of the men, to the point where I can remembering seeing some in photos of lab teams without having the faintest idea of a name. Now it'll annoy me about that woman who did something clever with DNA before Watson & Crick. I feel like she proved it was a protein or something?
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From:trixieleitz
Date:September 21st, 2007 10:09 am (UTC)
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Jane Goodall. Dian Fossey. Mary Leakey

Possibly a bit more obscure, depending on one's background: Barbara McClintock. Maud Menten. Mary Lyon.
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From:watervole
Date:September 21st, 2007 10:13 am (UTC)
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Rosalind Franklin - X-ray crystallography - her data helped Crick and Watson work out the structure of DNA.
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From:nwhyte
Date:September 21st, 2007 10:35 am (UTC)
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At one point I held a research fellowship named after Mary Ward, who may have been the first person killed in a car accident, and was also the great-grandmother of the actress Lalla Ward (Romana II). She was of course a contemporary and correspondent of Mary Somerville of the Oxford college.

On the unsung heroines side of that era in Irish science, there were the sisters of the polymath genius Sir William Rowan Hamilton, who seem to have actually done most of his astronomical work.

At a less glorified level, let us not forget that a hundred years ago the word "computer" meant "a woman who works in an observatory".
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From:spacefall
Date:September 21st, 2007 10:52 am (UTC)
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Dude, even hugely misogynistic Victorian writers could remember Mary Somerville, despite dissing Women in the next breath! That a collection of students these days can't do better is a bit depressing. Not even Curie??? Come on! :/
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From:hawkeye7
Date:September 21st, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
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I probably should have thought of Lise Meitner. Instead, I thought of Leona Marshall Libby (because her book Uranium People is on the shelf next to me), who was part of the team that powered up the first reactor. Your title had me thinking of the mathematician Sophie Germain. She was into number theory (but later got sidetracked into elasticity). In computing, we have Grace Hopper, who invented COBOL.

I would have thought that everybody has heard of Marie Curie (who is still the only person to have won two Nobel prizes in different scientific fields) but her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie also won the Nobel Prize - the only daughter of a Nobel laureate (well, two actually) to have done so. Last I heard, Irene's daughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot was still around, and is also a physicist, but, alas, has never won the Nobel.
From:jthijsen
Date:September 21st, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
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According to wikipedia, Grace Hopper did not invent COBOL, but its precursor Flow-Matic.
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From:redstarrobot
Date:September 21st, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)
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Maria Mitchell. Rachel Carson. Emmy Noether.
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From:executrix
Date:September 21st, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
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The Apgar Score for health of newborns is named after pediatrician Lisa Apgar (not sure about the first name, but this is definitely a female and not a male creation). Are anthropologists scientists? Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict. The term "bug" for a computer problem was coined by cybernetic pioneer Grace...errr, I think it was Coddington. She was a senior Naval officer which wasn't all that common at the time either. A lot of the early work in botany and paleontology was done by lady Victorian amateurs; one of them, Mary Anning, is mentioned in "The French Lieutenant's Woman."
From:jthijsen
Date:September 21st, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
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I hate to rain on your parade, but according to wikipedia, Grace Hopper is not the one who coined the term "bug". She wasn't even the one who found the moth. And the moth wasn't the start of the usage of that word for technical glitches. However, her role was quite remarkable enough all by itself, considering the more usual role for women in that era.
From:dreamalert
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
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Emilie du Châtelet

"she combined the theories of Gottfried Leibniz and the practical observations of Willem's Gravesande to show that the energy of a moving object is proportional to its mass and the square of its velocity (E ~ mv2), and not directly proportional as had previously been believed by Newton, Voltaire and others."

Without Emilie du Châtelet, Einstein never would have thought to square the speed of light.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Without Emilie du Châtelet, Einstein never would have thought to square the speed of light.

Her discovery is rather more profound than that. And I don't see that it has much to do with Einstein's E=mc^2 in any case: mc^2 is the rest mass energy, not the kinetic energy, and Einstein derived the energy equations of Special Relativity in section 10 of "On the Electrodynamcs of Moving Bodies" without reference to the classical expression for kinetic energy.
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From:talvalin
Date:September 21st, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
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Upholding the patriarchy here, I couldn't think of any (Marie Curie was on the tip of my tongue) and I studied physics at university.

As some kind of feeble defence, pulsars were not mentioned in the astrophysics course and I can honestly say that no one mentioned who discovered nuclear fission - we were simply taught about it at school.

So, research project - learn about female scientists.

I did know about Marie Germain, who had to disguise herself as a man in order to attend the Ecole Polytechnique.
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From:communicator
Date:September 21st, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)
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no one mentioned who discovered nuclear fission

it's a fascinating story as she had to flee Austria for neutral Sweden ahead of the Anschluss (she was Jewish) and left her work in the hands of Otto Hahn who couldn't make headway with it. They had some secret meetings, and correspondence, and he wrote it all up. And got the frickin' Nobel for it.

She was forgiving of Hahn as he had helped her to escape by the skin of her teeth, and hence saved her life. S
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From:communicator
Date:September 21st, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
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Interesting, because a philosophy graduate could name dozens of philosophers, but I suppose scientists and mathematicians learn the theory rather than the people behind the theory, which is fair enough
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From:communicator
Date:September 22nd, 2007 05:50 am (UTC)
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Looking at that back I noticed there is now a bit of a genre of books on the contribution of women to science, which by the look of this thread is a very rich seam


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