Had you heard of experimental physicist Chien-Shiun Wu? [Credit: Corbis]

The brightness of stars: forgotten female scientists

Think of the great canon of scientific names reaching into the past and how many of them are women? It's an uncomfortable truth that the pioneering work and achievements of many female scientists have been overlooked, their important legacies lost.

Think of a list of famous scientists, if you will, and plenty spring to mind. There are Galileo, Newton and Darwin for starters, then other iconic names like Einstein and Fleming might pop into your head, and, of course, the well known names of today such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox. But asked to name a few prominent female scientists, past or present, and how do you fare? Probably not as well, I’m betting.

Top of the list will be Marie Curie, as everybody knows her name right? She was the famous physicist and chemist who undertook pioneering research on radioactivity and was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was also the first person and only woman to win twice, in fact the only person to win twice in multiple sciences. She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

The phrase ‘on her own merits’ strikes a chord as, dig a little deeper, and you’ll soon come up with the names of prominent 19th and 20th century female scientists who carried out ground-breaking research, but whose inspirational careers largely went unmarked in favour of their male colleagues and whose legacies, as a consequence, have disappeared into the mists of time.

Marie Curie’s achievements are world-renowned; she is an iconic figure. Her work includes a theory of radioactivity – the word itself being a term she coined – as well as techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. And yet, in 1911 she was refused membership of the respected French Académie des Sciences, the same year she won her second Nobel Prize.

Then here in Britain we find ourselves today, over one hundred years later, having just witnessed the furore surrounding Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls” in the laboratory and you can’t help wondering how far has society actually come? Have one hundred years of evolving feminism made us so uptight about female emancipation that we can’t take Sir Tim for the “chauvinist monster” he so charmingly refers to himself as and shrug it off? Or are his comments, and the reactions to them, indicative of a continuing battle for equality which is still yet to be won, which we must thrust out into the open and maximise its impact to further a continuing dialogue?

Breakthrough discoveries

But back to our forgotten women. What about the less iconic, but no less talented women who have, throughout history, undertaken important scientific work and made significant breakthrough discoveries? The uncomfortable truth is that many of these women, probably the majority of them, were not given the credit deserved for their pioneering work and achievements, and, as a result, have disappeared from the great scientific canon.

Names like Henrietta Leavitt, Ida Tacke, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin and Chien-Shiung Wu, to name but a few. What school child today knows that British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin was a pioneering X-ray crystallographer. Who knows that her image of the DNA molecule was critical in deciphering its structure, leading to one of the biggest and most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century? But certainly, many will know the names of her fellow scientists James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their part in the research.

And what of Henrietta Leavitt whose pioneering work changed the very way we see the universe? A graduate of Radcliffe College, Leavitt started working at the Harvard College Observatory, one of the few jobs in science considered suitable for a woman, examining photographic plates in order to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars. Though she received little recognition in her lifetime, it was her discovery of a pattern between the brightness of a star and its distance from the Earth, known as the period-luminosity relationship, that allowed scientists to calculate how far away a star was from Earth based on its brightness.

Then there’s Ida Tacke, who made huge advances in both chemistry and atomic physics. She discovered two new elements, rhenium and masurium, that Russian chemist and inventor Dmitri Mendeleev had predicted would form part of the periodic table. In the science books, Tacke receives credit for the detecting rhenium; however, the discovery of masurium (now known as technetium) is attributed to scientists Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segre. Tacke's evidence for the discovery of masurium was ignored until Perrier and Segre artificially created the element in a laboratory. She is also credited with being the first person to open up the idea of nuclear fission.

And who is Lise Meitner? She was an Austrian physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics in the 1930s and 40s. Working with chemist Otto Hahn, their work on ‘transuranium elements’ led to the radiochemical discovery of the nuclear fission of uranium and thorium, laying the groundwork for the atomic bomb.

However, Hahn published their findings without including Meitner as a co-author, and the achievement won Hahn alone the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1944. Meitner is often cited as one of the most glaring examples of women's scientific achievement overlooked by the Nobel committee. Element 109, meitnerium, is posthumously named in her honour.

Another female physicist who worked on the early development of the atomic bomb is Chien-Shiun Wu, again a little-known name. A Chinese American experimental physicist, Wu worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the process for separating uranium metal into the uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. An article in the latest issue of E&T magazine looks at the legacy of the work carried out at the Manhattan Project site and its far-reaching significance for the nuclear power industry today.

But for Wu, her best known work is in conducting the Wu experiment, which challenged the hypothetical law of parity; experiments which turned the law on its head. The discovery resulted in her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang winning the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics. However Wu, although playing such a central role in the research, was omitted from the accolade.

A million more

So where are we now? Whilst the numbers of women studying science has risen, relatively few go on to pursue STEM careers. According to the Unesco Institute of Statistics, just 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women. While a growing number of women are enrolling in university, many opt out at the highest levels required for a research career.

In looking at the actual STEM workforce in the UK, the WISE Campaign’s most recent data shows that the percentage of women in STEM occupations has increased slightly since 2012, but is still only at 13 per cent. Women make up nearly half of the UK workforce, but only about a fifth of those are working in science, technology and engineering industries. It would take a million more women in STEM to reach a critical mass of 30 per cent of the workforce.

However, there are some very encouraging signs of progress. In the last two years, the number of women working as professional engineers in the UK has gone up by 13,255, more than double the number in 2012. The number of women working in technology has also increased, but not as fast as the increase for men, which means the percentage of women has gone down.

We have a long way to go. However, we’re getting so much better at celebrating our female scientists. As these role models become more high-profile and more accessible to the next generation, then greater numbers of girls will choose STEM careers. The scientific world needs them!

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