'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story' Finally Gives One Of The Many Discounted Women In Science Her Due
Opening in theaters Nov. 24, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story details the life of one of Hollywood's most glamorous actors of the 1930s, a woman who was never generally acknowledged as much more than a beautiful face. The film gives depth and nuance to other facets of Lamarr's life, including her dramatic escape from an abusive wartime marriage, her scandalous early film career, and most underrated of all, her love of inventing. Although many people today might have no idea, Lamarr's inventions had a resounding impact that shaped the world we now live in. But, unsurprisingly, before this documentary, history had mostly ignored her — not to mention the many other women inventors discounted despite equally incredible achievements.
As the film depicts, Lamarr, after a long, 12-hour day at the studio, would come home and unwind by filling notebooks full of ideas for inventions, or actually hammer them out at her workbench. As World War II began, she wanted to help her adopted country by thwarting Axis powers, so she focused on the problem of German submarines' ability to outmaneuver Allied torpedoes. Lamarr thought, what if you could control a torpedo after it was launched, to more accurately target the enemy? Working with friend and avant-garde composer George Anthiel, she invented a concept called "frequency hopping" that would avoid signals being blocked by enemy equipment by jumping from frequency to frequency ("hopping") at random intervals. You may not be familiar with it offhand, but it's the basis for almost all modern communications technology, including satellite communication, WiFi, and Bluetooth.
Lamarr's contributions to science and technology were huge, but she's far from the only brilliant woman who hasn't gotten her due. Researchers and Nobel Prize recipients James Watson and Francis Crick are generally considered the people behind our understanding of the basic structure of DNA, which has led to much-needed advances in gene therapy and synthesis in recent years. Yet Watson and Crick weren't alone in their work; research by Rosalind Franklin, chemist and X-ray crystallographer, led directly to the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure. She didn't receive initial acknowledgement for this, however, and there were persistent rumors her DNA photo was shown to Francis and Crick without permission by her colleague.
Tragically, Franklin passed away from ovarian cancer at age 37. Nobel prizes aren't awarded posthumously, so she never received the acclaim she deserved — and to make matters more frustrating, another colleague continuing her virus work was awarded his own Nobel in Chemistry in 1982.
Then there's Lise Meitner. The physicist was fleeing from Nazi occupation in 1938 as colleague Otto Hahn performed a delicate experiment isolating evidence for nuclear fission. He had the data, but puzzled by the experiment's results, wrote to a still-on-the-run Meitner, whose response articulated how and why an atom's nucleus could be split into smaller parts. Yet only Hahn won the 1944 Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission.
When the sealed Nobel committee records became public in the '90s, Ruth Lewin Sime wrote in Physics Today that "Meitner's exclusion from the chemistry award may well be summarized as a mixture of disciplinary bias, political obtuseness, ignorance, and haste." Thankfully, decades of scientists, aware of Meitner's invaluable contributions to science (she was invited, but refused to work on the Manhattan Project, saying she would have nothing to do with a bomb) attempted to make up for the fact posthumously with awards, acknowledgements, and even naming an element after her — Meitnerium. Still, Meitner didn't get the attention or acclaim she truly deserved during her life.
Nor did Henrietta Leavitt. You've probably heard of Edwin Hubble, or at least his last name, attached to research labs and telescopes in honor of his discovery that the universe is expanding. But Hubble's discovery rests on the work of Leavitt, one of Harvard College Observatory's "computers", aka women hired by Observatory director Edward Pickering to process the massive amounts of data coming in. Pickering chose women because they were efficient, uncomplaining, and most importantly, extremely cheap (the computers made more than factory workers, but less than clerical workers of their time). Also rudely known as "Pickering's Harem", these women organized data, performed arduous, massive calculations (that were then used in others' research), and classified stars.
As the women were the ones dealing directly with raw data, it's no surprise they were able to make connections others didn't see. In Leavitt's case, she realized the direct relationship between the luminosity (brightness) and pulsation period of Cepheid stars. Her discovery gave astronomy an extremely important marker of extreme distances in space. They allowed scientists, including Hubble, to accurately measure distant objects for the first time. One Minute Astronomer reports that Hubble himself even said Leavitt deserved a Nobel prize for her work, though she never received one.
The contributions of all these women may not have been celebrated during their lives, but perhaps they'll each, like Lamarr, eventually get their due, whether it be in documentaries like Bombshell, more posthumous awards, or some other form of acknowledgment. Let's hope in the future, more stories about brilliant, talented women get told — but while the women making them are still around to hear them.