Education Manager, Vanessa Rancour continues her reflections on the role of women in science over the last 2,000 years. Read Part 1 here.
After World War I, restrictions on women’s participation in universities were loosened and mathematician Emmy Noether (you may remember from Part 1) was finally given the right to be a professor at the University of Gottingen. However, her position was unpaid, untenured and with limited rights and functions. After Adolf Hitler came to power, it was taken away with her expulsion from Gottengen by the Third Reich for being a Jew. Noether then went to Bryn Mawr and Princeton Colleges in America but remarked about Princeton that she was not welcome at “the men’s university, where nothing female is admitted.” She allowed colleagues and students to receive credit for her ideas to help them develop their careers, but even with all of this, she still managed to solve a problem in general relativity. Upon receiving her work, Albert Einstein wrote: “Yesterday I received from Miss Noether a very interesting paper on invariants. I’m impressed that such things can be understood in such a general way. The old guard at Gottingen should take some lessons from Miss Noether! She seems to know her stuff.” This reference was to the University of Gottingen where Noether was never promoted to a full professor based on her gender. Separately in a letter to The New York Times, Einstein wrote: “In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of woman began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.”
In 1935 Chien-Shiung Wu was an assistant at Zhejiang University and became a researcher at the National Academy of Taiwan. Her supervisor received her PhD at the University of Michigan in the United States, and she encouraged Wu to do the same. But when Wu discovered that women were not even allowed to use the front entrance there, she decided to study at Berkeley instead. In 1964 at a symposium held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she said, “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
During World War II Chien-Shiung Wu joined The Manhattan Project (or more secretly known then as the Office of Scientific Research and Development), led by the US with support from the UK and Canada. They started hiring women scientists from their registry of people trained in sciences due to a shortage of male scientists as they went off to serve in the war effort. Chien-Shiung Wu helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into 235 and 238 isotopes. It was the Wu experiment, her major contribution to particle physics and the development of the Standard Model theory, that describes the four fundamental forces in the Universe. Her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. It was not until 1978 that Wu was be recognised for her role in the discovery when she became the first person awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics, considered to be the most prestigious physics prize after the Nobel Prize.
Marie Currie, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Chien-Shiung Wu; three defining women in science.
In 1974 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle, who co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 with Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Hewish was Bell’s thesis supervisor who was sceptical of the anomaly she was continuously reporting and insisted that the interference was man-made. A decade later Bell commented on the controversy over her name being excluded from the recipients of the prize, “First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”
She is in the company of great women but if it weren’t for advocates for women scientists like mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, we would not even know the name Marie Curie. The Curies discovered the element radium together, but Marie was not allowed to give a speech to the Royal Institution in London on radioactivity (a term she coined) because she was a woman and so her husband Pierre presented it alone. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in 1903 (this one was for physics and spoiler alert: she receives another). However, she was originally left off the nomination with only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel named. Mittag-Leffler was on the Nobel Prize Committee in 1903, and it was only because of his intervention that the committee relented and awarded the prize for physics to Marie Curie as well. Mittag-Leffler also began paperwork on Henrietta Leavitt’s Nobel Prize nomination in 1924. Edwin Hubble had suggested Leavitt deserved one for her work which he used to calculate the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. Unfortunately, she died of cancer and Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.
In 1911 Marie Curie became the first person to win a second Nobel Prize, and one of only two people to this day to be awarded prizes in two different sciences (the second one in chemistry). The Curie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie went on to discover the alchemist’s dream of turning one element into another with artificial radioactivity. She was awarded, along with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for this discovery.
On the other side of the spectrum from the controversy over who discovered pulsars, we have Sandra Faber and her graduate student Robert Jackson who co-discovered the Faber-Jackson relation in 1976. Faber was the astrophysicist and Jackson contributed to the data analysis on the project that led to the discovery of a link between the brightness of galaxies to the speed of stars within them. However, Faber included Jackson on the discovery even though she was the supervisor, and he was the student. Faber went on to help build the first wide-field planetary camera for the Hubble Space Telescope, become the principal investigator of the Nuker Team which use the Hubble to search for supermassive black holes in the centre of galaxies, part of a group that developed a way to estimate the total density of the Universe, and collaborated with three other colleagues to write the first proposal of dark matter being present during the evolution of galaxies from the Big Bang to today – a paper that is still the current understanding for the structure of the Universe!
Vera Rubin pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates and her data on the difference between the predicted and observed motion of galaxies provided the first evidence of the existence of dark matter. However, her application for the graduate programme at Princeton was rejected in 1948 as they did not accept women (and wouldn’t for another 27 years)! She studied under Richard Feynman at Cornell University for her masters and went to Georgetown University for her PhD. However, she was not allowed to meet with her advisor in his office because women were not allowed in that area of the university. Then in 1954, her dissertation concluded that galaxies clumped together, but this was not accepted for another two decades. In 1963 she collaborated with the Burbidges and there she made her first observation of rotations of galaxies. Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge were the B2 in the B2FH theory known today as stellar nucleosynthesis. This is the hypothesis that all chemical elements are synthesised in stars by nuclear reactions. Without this work, we wouldn’t have the famous quote by Carl Sagan, “We are made of star-stuff”.
It is people like Carl Sagan who are our scientific communicators inspiring the next generation of scientists, and who document our histories, so we can share in the amazing advancements that are being made in science. Ann Druyan co-wrote the 1980 series Cosmos hosted by her future husband Carl Sagan. Ann was also the creator/ producer/writer of the 2014 sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and producer/writer for the motion picture Contact. She was also the Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project where they created golden discs that were affixed to both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. Carolyn Porco was the planetary scientist who also worked on the Voyager missions and co-originated the idea to take a ‘portrait of the planets’ with the Voyager 1 spacecraft as well as participated in the planning of the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth. Porco was also the Director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, as well as a member of the imaging team for New Horizons.
There are so many other stories to tell, so be sure to celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th by checking out our up and coming post, Kiwi Women in Science, all about how New Zealand wāhine have in the past, and are currently contributing to scientific research and innovation. We are also hosting an event on Monday February 11th Her Story: Defining Women in Astronomy in celebration of women in the field. Finally, you can also pop into Stardome this August for the Women in Science exhibition. To conclude this article, we leave you with astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s poem, Planetarium, a tribute to women in astronomy.