Vanessa Rancour is Stardome’s Education Manager and holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Kent State University. In this two-part series, she reflects on the role of women in science over the last 2,000 years.

There are many scientific contributions by women that we rarely hear about. We’ll start by going over a few contributions that you may be familiar with. What is the Sun made of? You may say it is mostly hydrogen gas thanks to Cecilia Payne who brought that to light. Are there other galaxies in the Universe? “Preposterous!” said the scientific community until Henrietta Leavitt created Leavitt’s Law to calculate a star’s distance which led to our modern understanding of the true size of the Universe! 

Also, maths: Emmy Noether is ranked as one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century as she was instrumental in the development of the fields of abstract and modern algebra.  She has so many mathematical elements named after her we will try list a few: Noetherian Group, Ring, Module, Space, Induction, Scheme, Normalization lemma, Problem, Bound, and then there are objects that are just plain Noetherian.    She also has a few theorems to her name: Lasker-Noether, Skolem-Noether, Brill-Noether, Brauer-Noether, Albert-Brauer-Hasse-Noether, and finally Noether’s theorem shows that angular momentum of a system must be conserved. It explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws which has ramifications in both classical and quantum mechanics. 

But why is it important to point out the advances woman have made in science? 

Well, you may not have heard of these women; not because they haven’t provided significant contributions to science, but because they are women. For example, Cecilia Payne’s dissertation was reviewed by Henry Norris Russell (famous for the HR diagram) who dissuaded her from concluding that the Sun was predominantly hydrogen, which was contrary to common belief at the time. Four years later, Russell came to the same conclusion.  He published the information acknowledging Payne’s work in his paper but he is credited for the discovery.

During a presentation 28 September 2018 at CERN, an Italian professor said physics was, “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation.” The situational irony was not lost when the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Donna Strickland 2 October 2018, just four days later, for her invention of chirped pulse laser amplification along with her doctorial advisor Gerard Mourou. However, Strickland is only the 3rd woman Nobel laureate in Physics. The second was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. The first will be disclosed in Part 2 on the blog next month (the suspense will be palpable)!

History, unfortunately, is written by the victors and women have been fighting for their place in history for over 2,000 years. The following is a brief look at the women in science who have helped shape our view of the Universe, despite those who tried to keep them in the dark. Agnodice was a female physician in ancient Athens when women were forbidden to practice medicine. Aglaonike was an ancient Greek astronomer in 2 or 1 BC who calculated the time and general area of lunar eclipses. It may seem harmless now, but she was regarded as a sorceress. Even the modern era women who are good with maths have been jokingly referred to as having used black magic.

 “Lehmann discontinuity was discovered through exacting scrutiny of seismic records by a master of a black art for which no amount of computerisation is likely to be a complete substitute.” – Francis Birch, referring to Inge Lehmann, the geophysicist and seismologist who discovered that Earth has a solid inner core inside a molten outer core in 1936.

In 415 AD, the labelling of a woman as a user of black magic culminated in the brutal murder of Hypatia of Alexandria. She is known as the first woman mathematician, due to her major contributions to mathematics.  She taught astronomy, philosophy and mathematics at the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria in late 300 early 400 AD. Her death has been linked to a smear campaign against her that can be seen in the writings of the seventh-century Egyptian Coptic bishop, “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles.” Her very public dismemberment marked the end of documented women in science for many hundreds of years.

After the first millennium AD, women began to be recognised again for their contributions to science. A century later when the first medieval universities were formed, women were, for the most part, excluded from entry. These were indeed the Dark Ages, with cultural biases stopping women from becoming educated and thereby being able to participate in the advancement of science. During this time St. Thomas Aquinas referred to women as being: “mentally incapable of holding a position of authority.” 

This sentiment has unfortunately carried through the ages as young Joan Feynman (born in 1927) was told not to pursue science by both her mother and grandmother because they believed that women’s brains were not physically capable of understanding complex scientific concepts.  Thankfully, her older brother Richard Feynman (1965 Nobel laureate for his contribution to the development of quantum electrodynamics) encouraged her and introduced her to auroras one night by waking her up to see the northern lights flickering above a nearby golf course. She was finally convinced she could study science after coming across a graph based on research by a woman, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (giving credit to those who are due has great meaning). Joan Feynman went on to discover the nature and cause of auroras, uncovered a method for predicting sunspot cycles, discovered a way to detect solar coronal mass ejections, developed a new model for estimating environmental hazards in space thus shaping the design of spacecraft and among other things, was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal in 2002. 

Thankfully we did not have to wait a millennium for women to be supported in scientific endeavours. In the 16th-century the scientific revolution took place and the first woman to discover a comet came along in 1702. This is still sometimes mistakenly attributed to Caroline Herschel (1786) due to Maria Kirch’s husband Gottfried being noted as discovering C/1702 H1.  However, in his notes he wrote: “Early in the morning (about 2:00 am) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. Unfortunately, Maria could not work at the Berlin Academy of Science after her husband’s death as members feared that “Mouths would gape” if they officially hired a woman.

Sofia Kovalevskaya became the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Europe in 1889, despite not being allowed to attend university officially. She was allowed to audit classes at some universities, but it wasn’t until her private tutor Karl Weierstrass was able to have her exempt from the usual oral examinations, that her papers were accepted by the University of Gottingen in 1874 as her doctoral dissertation. She then earned her doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude. Her papers focussed on partial differential equations (containing the Cauchy-Kovalevskay-a theorem), the dynamics of Saturn’s rings and on elliptical integrals.

Annie Cannon became a member of “Pickering’s Women” in 1896 along with Henrietta Leavitt (you may remember her from the top of this article, but not from history as Edward Pickering published her work with his own name on it). His group is also known as “Pickering’s Harem”, referring to the harem effect, the phenomenon where a male scientist in a position of power predominantly hires females for his research team. This is mostly a result of women being paid less (or not at all), as well as minimising the competition they would receive as women were excluded from taking examinations that would have allowed them to enter higher ranking jobs.  Cannon classified more stars than anyone else (350,000), discovered 300 variable stars, 5 novae and 1 spectroscopic binary. The International Astronomical Union also adapted Cannon’s stellar classification system which is still used today. 

The arrival of World Wars I and II would forever change the lives of both men and women. The ramifications for science will be covered in A Universe Discovered Through Defining Women: Part 2. Stay tuned next month.  

Women in Science Part 1

Image: Sofia Kovalevskaya, Cecilia Payne and Emmy Noether; three defining women in science. (Obviously, not all pictured together at once!)