“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” — Rosalind Franklin
Science is a poetry in motion, a beautiful one at that. Over the years, Science has evolved into a sophisticated practice, exposing us to 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, answered many questions till date but still it has, in ways, failed us when it comes to the gender equity regarding women’s achievements in the field.
Women: The unsung heroes of Science who changed the world
Marie Curie : Born in a not so well to do family, Marie Curie had a difficult childhood to start with. 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 being the top student of her class, she couldn’t go to the University of Warsaw just because she was a girl. She later went on to get degrees in Physics and Mathematics.
Marie Curie definitely has to be one of the most famous scientist the world has even known. Winning a Nobel prize in Science in a single field is a big feat, she did it twice, that too in two 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 definitely was a unique feat for lady in that era. She developed a mobile X-ray unit during the first world war. Though facing endless sexism during her career, she still made it to the top and she definitely is one of the most prominent scientist the world has ever seen.
Compared to other Scientists, Marie Curie did leave her mark on the Earth, but there has been so many unsung heroes of Science that are forgotten.
Caroline Herschel is one of them. Caroline Herschel was born on 16th March 1750 AD in the town of Hanover, Germany. She suffered from Typhus at the age of 10 which inhibited her growth as she never grew more than four feet 3 inches and it ended up affecting her vision in the left eye. As a result of that, her parents assumed that she wasn’t going to get married ever and thought that she’d be better off if they were to train her as a house servent. After her father’s death, her brothers invited her to join them in England to try out singing as a career. While in England, one of her brother, William Herschel, was involved in Astronomy and she was there to support her brother by running chores and feeding him and all. But she did end up with him on his Astronomical adventure as an apprentice. William Herschel went on to discover the planet Uranus during that time. Caroline went on to help her brother to develop modern mathematical approach to astronomy. In 1783 Caroline discovered 3 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 women who was paid for her contribution to Science.
Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878. She was a smart kid to being with, specially in science and mathematics, not surprisingly, she wasn’t allowed to go to university, because “Woman”. 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.
Ever heard of the name Lise Meitner before? or the term Nuclear Fission? 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 utilize 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 for the “Discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei” and guess what? Yes, Lise Meitner did not. It’s a very sad thing that she didn’t win a Nobel prize. But oh well!
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943 in Belfast, Ireland. She did have a better educational childhood compared to other 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 analyze the first pulsars, which are highly magnetized rotating stars. This was described as the greatest astronomical discovery in the 20th century. In 1968 issue of Nature, their findings were published causing an uproar in the scientific world. In 1974, Anthony Hewish, her PhD advisor, along with Martin Ryle went on to win the Nobel Prize. And, guess what? I’ll leave you guys to guess that part.
It only gets better!
Cecilia Payne Gaposchikin was a British-American Astronomer born in 1900 in England. She had a good schooling and all, she went to Cambridge, completed her studies but wasn’t awarded a degree, because Cambridge didn’t grant degrees to women until 1948. Cambridge- one of the most prestigious universities! The motto of the university is “From here, light and sacred draughts”.
Cecilia discovered what the Sun is made up of, but the leading astronomer of the day, Henry Noriss Rusell dismissed her hypothesis and asked her not to publish it, 4 years down the line, he publishes a paper with the same conclusion that she came up with and was credited for the discovery for the most of history.
Rosalind Franklin was an chemist and 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 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. But her colleague, Maurice Wilkins shared the information she had discovered, without her knowledge to James Watson Francis Crick, who then went on to discovery the double helix structure of DNA with the vital information derived from the images that Franklin took. J. D 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 discovery of double helix model of DNA. Franklin was excluded. She was robbed.
Emmy Noether was a German Mathematician. She made an enormous contributions in mathematics and physics. Noether’s theorem is known to be the one of the most mathematical theorem ever proved that has guided the modern physics. She was described as the most important women in mathematics by none other that Albert Einstein. Even with that passion and intelligence, she had to tutor for 7 years without a pay because women were excluded from academic position. 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) is no porne to sexism as is other fields of education, politics or life. There has been so many other instances where women were robbed of Nobel Prize just because of their sex. 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 input on Einstein’s work. 95% 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 the computer codes for the command and lunar modules on the Apollo.
Science 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 civilization and the planet earth. But it’s sad that over and over again science fails to credit the better half or our race. I hope that our generation fails to exercise and bring back that sexism that has been an integral part of Scientific community in the past and explore the depth of universe, the chasm of knowledge that awaits us with our fellow women scientists and then praise them and pamper them with recognition and promote women in STEM. Science is life, life needs women, without women there’s not life, and Science needs women. I hope that the current STEM scenario of Nepal changes and we manage to promote more female scientists in Nepal.