Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Women in History Month

March is Women in History Month, here in the US, so clearly I need to discuss the history of women in math and science. There is zero chance that I could name even 0.0000001% of the women who have been influential in science and mathematics, so I'm going to name a few who have made a difference in my view, mostly because they were absolutely phenomenal scientists. I will not name any living, women scientists who directly affected me, but there were many, and I think that most of them know how influential they were.

The women I mention below overcame great, artificial barriers to do their work. In my opinion, anyone who says women cannot do science or math as well as men should be removed from public life permanently. Mr. Summers, I'm looking at you and Barbie, in particular. There is absolutely no evidence that, given the same support and resources, women do not thrive as well as or better than men in any field. If you disagree, you are irrelevant and can go elsewhere; I'm not interested in your opinion.

Back to celebrating, with my favorite first.

Dr. Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie is the scientist that inspired my love of science. When I was about six or seven, I read a book about her and decided that science and math would be my future. She studied radioactivity (coined the term and has a unit of measure--the Curie---named after her), discovered the elements radium and polonium, and pioneered the use of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of cancer. She became the first female professor at the University of Paris, and was the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes.

In 1903, she was awarded, along with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radiation. This was the first time a woman was awarded a Nobel Prize. In 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize (and did not share it), this time in chemistry,
"in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element"
She is only one of two people to receive a Nobel Prize in two different fields. The other is male and is therefore irrelevant to this discussion.

Her graduate student, Marguerite Perey, was the first woman to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences (Dr. Curie was refused the honor in 1911 because of sexism).

She was, is, and should continue to be an inspiration to all scientists.

Dr. Jane Goodall
(1934 - present)
Jane Goodall began studying the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, in 1960 and continued for 45 years (I'm not sure that she's done even now). She was the first scientist to observe the creation of tools in non-humans; previously, it was known that non-humans could use tools, but that only humans were sophisticated enough to make them. She has contributed much to the field of primatology over her 45 years, and I can only hope that I will be able to put up with the scientific community for half that long.
In 1974, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which is active in protecting the environment.
Dr. Goodall has written too many books to list, including many children's books.

Florence Nightingale
(1820 - 1910)
Florence Nightingale pioneered the use of hygiene and sterilization in military field hospitals during the Crimean War. It was her work to clean up a medical barracks in Istanbul that caused the death rate there to drop from ~43 per cent to 2 per cent. She developed a very strong desire to move health care away from cold, impersonal, crowded hospitals to the patients' homes.
"my view you know is that the ultimate destination is the nursing of the sick in their own homes. … I look to the abolition of all hospitals and workhouse infirmaries. But it is no use to talk about the year 2000."
Nightingale believed in and heavily used a data-based approach to determining how well hospitals and health care officials were caring for their patients. She was one of the first health care professionals who gathered and analyzed copious amounts of statistical data throughout her career. To present the results of her work in tracking deaths due to needlessly poor conditions, Nightingale developed the Polar-area Diagram, also known as the Rose Diagram. This diagram was derived from the pie chart, but is actually useful in comparing multiple data sets (the pie chart is just about the most useless way of presenting data imaginable).
In 1859, Nightingale was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, Ph.D. (1906 - 1992)
Grace Hopper was at the forefront of computer development in the 40s.
She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale in 1934 and taught at Vassar from 1931 to 1943, when she joined the US Navy Reserves, where she served on the Mark I programming staff. She essentially invented the compiler, which is a bit of software that translates a human-readable programming language into machine language. COBOL, the business programming language still in use today, was based on her compiler FLOW-MATIC. She pioneered the use of reusable computer code (reducing errors and making software extensible), and was one of the developers of UNIVAC I.

Dr. Lisa Randall
Dr. Rosalind Franklin
Mary Somerville
Caroline Herschel
Carolyn Shoemaker
Dr. Sally Ride
Dr. Olivia Judson

There are, of course, many, many more, but here's my problem: I don't have the space to talk about each and every famous influential woman in science and mathematics. Or even about my favorites. :( This page is already getting long and I'm feeling guilty about having to choose one over the others.

I may try to post some about some other people during this month. We'll see how time works out. If you have a favorite (or several), post in a comment and I will look her up and post a paragraph or so when time allows.

1 comment:

deborah said...

Thank you Moses for celebrating these great women. Many of them I did not know about although I did read a novel about Dr. Marie Curie back in my eary twenties. I can't remember if it was a novel based on fact or a biography but I do know that I was facinated with both her life and her accomplishments.