5 Forgotten Women of Science & Maths Who Were Behind Some Of Humanity's Greatest Discoveries
Women do science and maths. And when they do it, they do it just as well as men. Sometimes better. We all know this, right? You get it. I get it. We all get it. But if you’re asked to name a famous scientist, how many women make it to the top of your list, ahead of the men we all learnt about in school? Pretty much everyone can name one woman scientist: Marie Curie, the poster girl of ladies that “do it.”
She’s the one with two Nobel prizes, who found two new fundamental elements by cooking up radioactive rocks in her kitchen laboratory. The element Curium was named after her, and there’s the cancer care charity too — the one with the yellow daffodils. Seriously, if you can’t name her, what rock have you been hiding under all your life? Probably not a radioactive one.
My own tribute to Marie Curie features in our new show from Festival of the Spoken Nerd: You Can’t Polish A Nerd. We’ve created a measure of radioactivity that doesn’t use an expensive geiger counter, just a humble banana. It also involves a song and dance routine with full-body fruit-costumes. You really have to see it to believe it.
But Marie isn’t the only wonder woman of science you should know about. I’ve been quietly adding them into our shows, DVDs and radio series for years. But I’ve realised now that it’s time to stop being quiet and start shouting about them until they’re just as famous as the guys. Every scientist, mathematician, coder, researcher, and engineer has a different way of looking at the world from their (often male) colleagues. It’s these different perspectives that help invent, create, and discover things that are truly unique.
So next time you’re asked to name a famous scientist by a curious niece or nosy nephew, you’ve now got half a dozen groundbreaking, smart and generally kick-ass women in science to reel off as role models for future generations.
1. Hertha Ayrton
First up is the most significant British scientist that you’ve probably never heard of. Aside from all the awards, accolades, and patents she earned in her career, she also founded the UK’s first all-female fire brigade. But only after proving to the authorities that she could climb up a ladder in a full length skirt without causing a fire hazard of her own.
As the first female member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, her experiments and inventions number in the dozens, from architectural instruments to improvements in street lighting that earned her a Royal Society Hughes medal in 1906. The next woman to be given the same award received it a mere 102 years later.
Ayrton's lifelong research project was to find a way to describe sand ripples forming underwater, which led her to invent The Ayrton Fan. During World War One, 100,000 of these ingeniously simple devices were dispatched to the Western Front to clear the air after poison gas attacks from trenches. On top of that, she was a lifelong friend and pen pal of sister-in-science, Marie Curie. Go ladies!
2. Ada Lovelace
Computing history is littered with forgotten women, from the coders of Hidden Figures to the women who hand-knitted computer memory banks from metal thread for the Apollo space missions.
The first computer programme is no exception. It was written about 100 years before the first computer was actually built, and not by the Victorian equivalent of a Shoreditch tech bro, but by the daughter of a famous poet and his mathematically-minded wife.
That daughter — Ada Lovelace — worked with inventor Charles Babbage, the designer of mechanical number-crunching machines including the Analytical Engine. Although these machines were never actually built in their lifetime, Lovelace saw the true potential of them as more than just gigantic calculators. She envisioned that humans would one day work with them to become more — not less — creative. By feeding in text, these “computers” could create new literature; feeding images could create art, and feeding music might create new and exciting compositions. If that’s not a vision today’s computing power, I don’t know what is.
3. Sophie Germain
What would you do if you wanted to study mathematics in post-revolutionary Paris, but the best university won’t accept women onto the course?
If you’re a young Sophie Germain, you borrow the name of a male student, get hold of his lecture notes and then send your homework in under that assumed name: the fantastically appropriate “Monsieur Le Blanc”.
Credit is due to her tutor, the mathematician Lagrange, who asked for a meeting with the promising young monsieur but didn’t seem to bat an eyelid when a mademoiselle turned up instead. Germain went on to win numerous awards, make important progress in Fermat’s Last Theorem — that famous mathematical problem that took 350 years to truly solve — and have a type of Prime number named after her. Not bad for someone who started out their mathematical career with nothing more than a “Blanc” canvas.
4. Caroline Herschel
As the younger sister of George III’s court astronomer, Herschel was given all the worst jobs in astronomy: endless cataloguing of stars seen through her brother’s telescopes, and endless admin and correspondence.
On a more interesting day, Herschel would get to pound horse dung into moulds to make the giant mirrors that went inside the famous Herschel telescopes. Good times.
Herschel has suffered a lot from comparison with her more famous sibling. If William hadn’t discovered the planet Uranus, Caroline’s own scientific achievements would have stood out on their own, without question. She discovered 8 comets alone, along with countless galaxies, nebula, and other features of the night sky, and a comet and crater on the moon were named after her. And she made telescopes using horse dung. The woman is a legend.
5. Rosalind Franklin
The astonishing double-helix structure of DNA was first realised by scientists James Watson and Francis Crick after years of work at the University of Cambridge, but a key component of their discovery came from a different source: the X-ray photography of Rosalind Franklin.
Franklin was the one who meticulously prepared strands of DNA, ten thousand times thinner than a human hair, and fired X-rays through them photographic plates. Because of how X-rays get bounced around, the resulting “photograph” becomes a beautiful black and white pattern, unique to the structure of the DNA sample in the way. It provided the final piece of evidence Watson and Crick needed to announce their discovery to the world.
Tragically Rosalind Franklin died from ovarian cancer four years before Watson, Crick, and Franklin’s boss Maurice Wilkins were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize, which can only be given to living scientists. We’ll never know if she would have been included on that list.
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