Women In Science: 5 Of History’s Greatest Icons

The other day, I sat down to watch Madame Curie. It’s not what I’d call a great movie. It’s okay. But it’s a dramatization, and as such, kind of obscures what I find cool about an awesome woman – her research. That being said, it made me start thinking about great women in science. I thought I’d make a nonexhaustive list of the ones I find fascinating.

5. Marie Sklodowska Curie

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I’ll admit that this one’s an obvious one, but I have admired Marie Curie for pretty much as long as I can remember being a conscious person. And really, who hasn’t? She was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize,  the first person to ever win twice, and remains  both the only woman to ever win in two fields and the only person to ever win in two sciences. Even outside of her Nobel Prizes, she was the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She’s an icon.

Most of the time, I would probably rank her as my number one. But she is the single most famous female scientist of all time. She’s not someone I can say people should be more aware of, because that’s just disingenuous. I’d be willing to bet more people know about Marie Curie than they do John Bardeen or Frederick Sanger, the only two other people who have ever gotten two science Nobels. Even so, she’s still hugely important and a major role model of mine.

She nearly didn’t get her first Nobel Prize – for Physics, shared with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie – because she was a woman. Her name was added to the nomination after Pierre complained, making it clear how crucial she was. She kept working through the death of her husband and the scandal that occurred after the uncovering of her affair with a married man after the aforementioned death. Even a mob gathering outside her house and terrorizing her daughters wasn’t enough to make her back down. She got her second Nobel Prize, this time as the sole recipient. And even though the committee didn’t want her to attend the ceremony, she did it anyway.

Curie was a trailblazer. She inspired countless women and changed the face of science as we know it. There’s a reason she’s been one of my heroes for as long as I can remember. And that’s that she was one of the coolest people ever.

4. Lise Meitner

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What list of awesome women in the sciences would be complete without mentioning Lise Meitner? She was a brilliant physicist, so smart that Max Planck – a fellow brilliant physicist, but one that was a major misogynist that didn’t allow women into his lectures until Meitner – took her on as his assistant, and one of the first to hypothesize the concept of nuclear fission. Beyond that, she had to deal with prejudice stemming both from being a woman in science and being Jewish in Germany in the 30s.

She had to flee the Nazis for Sweden after scientists had been prohibited from leaving the country and open season had been declared on Jews. It was from Sweden that she corresponded with her research partner, Otto Hahn, about his latest results in his research into the radioactive decay of uranium. It was Hahn that split the atom, for which he deservedly received the 1944 Nobel Prize. But it was Meitner that realized just what he was observing – uranium atoms splitting and releasing large amounts of stored energy. It’s kind of hard to overstate how big that was.

She didn’t share in Hahn’s Nobel Prize, nor did she ever win a Nobel Prize, despite many (48) nominations in both physics and chemistry, by everyone from Hahn to Niels Bohr to her former employer Planck. This is widely considered one of the biggest snubs in the history of Nobel Prizes.

3. Cecilia Payne

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Payne studied at Cambridge, but didn’t receive her degree because she was a woman. So what did she do, to fulfill her goal to work as something other than a teacher? Why, she  was awarded a fellowship and moved to the U.S., where she became the first person to obtain an astronomy PhD from Radcliffe College. Her thesis has been referred to as the most brilliant astronomy PhD thesis ever written.

The conclusions she drew from her research – that we now know to be accurate – about the composition of stars and the amount of hydrogen in the universe were so far outside of what was accepted to be true at the time that Henry Norris Russell, upon reviewing her paper, advised her to avoid actually making that conclusion. Four years later, he came to discover she was right after all. To his credit, he didn’t try to bury Payne’s efforts – in his paper, he acknowledged that she’d discovered the Sun’s different chemical composition from Earth.

2. Katherine Johnson

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As far as I can remember, I never had an “I want to be an astronaut” phase. But I did have one where I was absolutely obsessed with NASA. And I’m an engineering student, so for me, like many other engineering students…that phase still hasn’t really ended.

Young me thought astronauts were the height of cool. People like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mae Jemison inspired me to go into STEM. But for me, it was never really about the destination, not about going to space. It was about the journey. About creating something that can get there. The where matters, but the how is everything. And when it comes to engineering, the how is math and physics. When it comes to the early days of the manned space program, we’re talking about people like Katherine Johnson.

Mathematics is the most beautiful language on the planet. It’s elegant with countless practical applications. It’s universal. And like any language, going beyond the basics is hugely difficultWhich is why I find it so awesome that Johnson was considered the best NASA had at it. We’re talking about a black woman during segregation without a graduate degree who was so good at what she did that John Glenn specifically requested she check the calculations. Early astronauts had to be ridiculously brave. These are people that sat on top of rockets and went up into space, relying on computers with less – much less – computational power than in a modern cell phone to get them back home. The line Glenn drew between too crazy and an acceptable level of risk was Johnson’s mathematical ability. That’s just badass.

I was so excited to see Hidden Figures because I knew about her. I started watching Timeless recently, and seeing her referred to as “the smartest person in the building” and Rufus being starstruck to meet her was so cool. I’m not nearly as good at math as I hoped to be when I first learned about her. My life goals have shifted. But the extent of my admiration for this woman hasn’t changed a bit.

1. Grace Hopper

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I took a couple classes where I had to write code in machine language. And my major takeaway from that experience was, thank God for Grace Hopper. She invented the first compiler. Meaning it’s because of her that we don’t have to do that anymore.

Debugging is hard enough when your code is written in English and it’s easy to tell what each line is for. But when you have hundreds of lines of binary, it’s a nightmare. Words cannot describe my gratitude for compilers. And as such, words cannot describe my gratitude to Grace Hopper. She had a PhD in mathematics – that thing I just referred to as the most beautiful language in the world – from Yale! She made computers accessible to non-engineers and mathematicians! She’s one of the reasons I can type this and put it on the Internet for people to read! How awesome is that?

Honourable Mention: Julie Payette

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Julie Payette is not a lifelong hero of mine, not like the others on this list. Nor is she a historical figure, seeing as she’s still very much alive. But I think she deserves some recognition. In elementary school, I remember a project. Everyone in my class got an astronaut on whom we had to give a presentation. I got Julie Payette. Now, that was a long time ago. And under a lot of circumstances, I probably wouldn’t remember that, much less anything about her. Luckily enough, Julie Payette is now Canada’s governor general, meaning I had to look her up again!

Payette wasn’t the first to do anything. She doesn’t have a PhD. She didn’t make any major discovery or invent something game changing. But she’s a highly competent scientist that stands as an example of science as a collaborative field. It takes more than one person to advance knowledge. Every invention and discovery comes as a result of a great deal of previous effort, because of countless individuals both known and unknown to history. Payette may not be my hero, but I damn well have to recognize the contributions she, and others like her, have made to the world we live in.

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