Friday, August 29, 2014

Women in Science You Should Know

1) Mary Somerville translated many scientific texts and brought the achievements of her scientific contemporaries to a wider audience. Along with Caroline Herschel, Somerville was one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. The word “scientist” was coined in a review of one of her books, though it wasn’t applied to Somerville herself.

2) Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet — and went on to find eight in total. She also discovered several deep-sky objects, including the Sculptor Galaxy. King George III granted Caroline a £50 salary for her work, making her the first woman to earn a living from astronomy.

3) Mary Anning was a fossil hunter whose finds made an important contribution to the understanding of the Earth’s history during her lifetime. She found the very first ichthyosaur skeleton when she was just 12 years old, and the first two plesiosaur skeletons, among many others.

4) Emmy Noether was a leader in developing early abstract algebra. And she proved a theorem, which now bears her name, that links symmetries of nature to physical conversion laws. Einstein called her the “most significant” mathematician of her time.

5) Leavitt gave us the first step on a ladder that we still use to measure cosmic distances today. Working at Harvard College Observatory in 1912 she showed a link between the brightness of a Cepheid variable star and how long it takes to brighten and dim. This property means Cepheid variables are immensely useful for measuring distances in the universe.

6) Alice Catherine Evans was a microbiologist who championed the pasteurisation of milk, after discovering that microbes in unpasteurised milk could sicken humans. She was working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the time, but her work was only taken seriously when it was confirmed by other scientists.

7) Annie Maunder was top of her class when she studied mathematics at Cambridge in 1889. But she didn’t receive a BA — they were only awarded to men at the time. She went on to study the sun, in particular the solar cycle, with her husband. They documented what is now known as the Maunder minimum, a period of extreme quiet on the sun in the late 17th century.

8 ) Dorothy Hodgkin developed the technique of protein crystallography and confirmed the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12. She won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 and was the second woman, the first being Florence Nightingale, to receive the Order of Merit.

9) Meitner was the first woman physics professor in Germany. She was working on nuclear physics with her colleague Otto Hahn when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938. While in Stockholm she received news from Hahn that their experiment had produced an unexpected element. Meitner realised it meant fission had taken place while Hahn was still trying to figure out what their data meant. He went on to win a Nobel prize for the discovery, while Meitner was left out.

10) Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar, a fast-rotating, radiation-emitting star made almost entirely of neutrons, when she was a graduate student at Cambridge. Her Ph.D. supervisor Antony Hewish, along with Martin Ryle, went on to win a Nobel prize for their work on the discovery, but Bell Burnell was not included. She went on to be the first female president of the Institute of Physics. Now she is a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

11) Mildred Dresselhaus is often called the “queen of carbon science” and has been studying it in various forms for over 50 years. Now, graphene is hailed as a wonder material and using carbon in electronics is on the horizon. At 82, she’s still a professor at MIT and recently won the $1 million Kavli prize in nanoscience.

12) Rosalind Franklin earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. She learned crystallography and X-ray diffraction, techniques that she applied to DNA fibers. One of her photographs provided key insights into DNA structure. Other scientists used it as the basis for their DNA model and took credit for the discovery.

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