Our resident scientist salutes the overlooked gender giants of intellect
As the father of a daughter, I have a vested interest in seeing that she receives the same opportunities as her male counterparts. (i.e. “Boys.”) I’m especially interested in her being able to pursue a career in Science (if she wants one).
Of course, we’ve all heard that while girls outshine boys in Math and Science in the early grades, they usually abandon those studies for more traditionally “girly” pursuits. (That, in itself, is an article for another time.) This is unfortunate, because, throughout history, women have made amazing and even civilization-changing contributions to Science. So, this month, I’d like to briefly look at just three of these amazing scientists.
(1799 – 1847)
Born in an era when women were treated as little better than large children, Mary Anning was a paleontologist who made her living collecting and selling Jurassic-era fossils that she found in the cliffs near her family home. Among the many discoveries she made were: Ichthyosaur (“fish lizard”) skeletons, plesiosaur skeletons (some folks think that “Nessie” is a plesiosaur) and even a pterosaur (“flying lizard”) skeleton!
For my money, however, the most fascinating thing she did was to help identify “Bezoar” stones for what they actually were: coprolites, a.k.a., fossilized poop. (If the term “Bezoar stone” sounds familiar, it’s because they were originally thought to be protection against poisons, and have long been popular magic items in fantasy stories.)
The work that Mary did was actually quite dangerous. The fossils she collected were usually exposed as a result of landslides, and further landslides were always a possibility when out collecting.
Unfortunately, Mary was never afforded any real credit or fame for her work, at least not while she lived. In the early 19th Century, being a man was a prerequisite for participating in the Scientific community. As a result, when Mary died from Cancer at age 47, she was mostly unacknowledged for her contributions to paleontology.
(1912 – 1997)
During the Second World War, Scientists from all over the world came together to stop the Axis powers and win the war.
One such Scientist, Chien-Shiung Wu, was a Chinese-born Physicist that played a vital role in the Manhattan Project. Specifically, Wu helped develop the “gas diffusion” process that allowed scientists to separate Uranium into Uranium-235 and -238. Both isotopes that were needed to power the Atomic Bombs that eventually ended the war in the Pacific.
She even has an experiment named after her: The Wu Experiment. In this experiment, Wu and her team proved that, for certain types of particle interactions, those interactions will cause particles to decay in an asymmetric fashion.
(Basically, we expect them to emit particles in one particular direction, but they don’t. In order to test this, Wu also had to come up with a scientific way to distinguish the idea of “left” from “right,” which hadn’t been done before!)
For these achievements, and many others, Wu was often compared to Marie Curie and was known as “The First Lady of Physics.”
(1815 – 1852)
As a computer programmer myself, I’ve long admired Ada Lovelace. Ada was a contemporary of Charles Babbage, who had designed a thing he called an “Analytical Engine.” This machine could be told to execute a series of steps and perform mathematical operations with each step. It was, in other words, a computer!
Ada, who was a mathematical prodigy, worked with Babbage and his machines at length, and wrote copious notes on its operation and possible uses. Within one particular set of notes, she wrote an example of how the Analytical Engine could be used to calculate a series of “Bernoulli Numbers.” That example is today considered to be the first computer program and Ada herself, the first computer programmer!
So, when our daughters show a love for Math and Science, let’s all try to encourage them. You never know what amazing contributions they might make to humanity!
Steven Disbrow is a computer programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development, an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.