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

marie curie

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

lise meitner

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


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

julie payette

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.

Stanislaw Lem and Science Fiction

My first year of university, I took a course on Russian and Eastern European sci-fi. This was, of course, to fill a gen-ed requirement, and the only time I actually use anything I learned in it is to explain why Animorphs is an excellent series that should go down in the ranks of classic sci-fi stories. I figured this is as good a time as any to try something else: let’s talk about Stanislaw Lem.

Lem was a pioneer of Eastern European science fiction despite not even liking the genre and considering most works in it terrible – the exception being Philip K Dick, who did not return his respect (though probably not due to any extreme feelings about Lem’s work, just his own paranoia and belief that Lem wasn’t a real person.)

His most famous work is Solaris,  which is okay. I don’t love it, but it was readable. For me, it, like most of Lem’s work, is more memorable for its impact on science fiction than its own merits. It has had two film adaptations that Lem disliked, including one that I find ridiculous because it somehow managed to fade into obscurity despite being directed by Steven Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron, and  starring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Natascha McElhone, and John Cho (though granted, before the last three of the aforementioned actors were well known). It’s had multiple theatre adaptations, and apparently even an opera.

Lem’s work, even beyond Solaris, has been highly acclaimed. I don’t get it. I’m all for themes and philosophical questions and moral quandaries in books, but in order to address those things, the book has got to be entertaining, first. Most of what I’ve read from Lem is just boring, and almost painfully pretentious, with the one exception being The Star Diaries.

It’s possible that part of the reason it stands out to me as so much better is that it had a better translation. Maybe if I knew Polish, I’d find that Solaris, too, was filled with a mildly snarky narration. But I don’t. So Solaris seems to me like two hundred odd pages of dry nothingness. The Star Diaries, on the other hand, is hilarious. It’s largely a parody of common science fiction tropes, and involves aliens horrified by humans as a species; the lead character being hit with a pan being wielded by his future self; and space travel so casual, that the aforementioned lead character turned his ship around and went some huge distance because he’d forgotten something at the spaceport. I’m told there was a German sitcom adaptation, and if anyone knows where I can find that, I will be eternally grateful.

It raises an interesting point about science fiction in general. Fans of the genre, as well as its writers (Lem himself being an obvious example), are often divided on almost every issue. Hard vs soft sci-fi? Do the space opera Star Wars-esque works count?  Hell, I’ve even seen people debate the term sci-fi. One thing that I frequently see is complaints about the lack of appreciation for the genre when it comes to literary communities and awards.

When it comes to film and television science fiction, I’ll admit that they have a point. There aren’t many sci-fi movies or shows that get critical acclaim. But when it comes to literature, I think we need to broaden the question, because there are plenty of authors and works that get heaped with critical praise. Before we talk about if/why science fiction gets looked down upon in the literary community, we need to address how said community judges books. There’s a valid discussion to be had about what we consider a “classic”, or a work of “literary merit”.

I find the whole concept of literary fiction to be a nonsense, made up category. The way I see it, there are four categories a work can fall into:

  1. Entertaining with no deeper themes.
  2. Boring with no deeper themes.
  3. Entertaining with deeper themes.
  4. Boring with deeper themes.

Obviously, the first and second shouldn’t be considered classics. But I’ve found that often, the third is overlooked in favour of the fourth, especially in regards to science fiction. Things that are entertaining and that don’t necessarily delve into the minutia of the science – which is probably a smart choice, given that technology marches on and doing so could leave a work extremely dated in a few decades – are sometimes dismissed as nothing of merit, just popcorn for the masses. Even setting aside for a moment the arrogant pretentiousness of claiming that popular works don’t have merit, that’s a shame.

You can see it in Lem’s work. Solaris as a book bored me, but it was short enough that I could get through it quickly. The movies were worse – we watched them in class, and I fell asleep. In both of them. I recognize that it raised interesting questions, but God, it would have been nice if it had done it in a more entertaining way. The Star Diaries, though? That also raised important philosophical questions, like the nature of humanity, and the consequences of scientific progress. But it did it in a humorous fashion. It never felt like a lecture, or like it was dragging on. But it’s Solaris that’s considered the classic, not The Star Diaries. Works like that being considered representative of the genre instead of the more entertaining and accessible pieces is alienating and contributes to the lack of widespread appreciation.

Stanislaw Lem was himself rather obnoxious and arrogant, dismissing other writers in his genre as ignoring the possibilities in favour of writing nonsense, so perhaps it’s fitting that some of his works are ignored in favour of focusing on others. His work and exploration of sci-fi tropes before their popularization was very valuable to the genre he disliked. But unfortunately, he exhibited the same kind of elitism that prevents excellent works from being acknowledged and alienates readers that could otherwise find a great deal of science fiction enjoyable.

Emma Dumont: Engineering and Art

Lorna Dane is my favourite character on The Gifted. So I looked up her actress, Emma Dumont, on Wikipedia, and I was immediately delighted by what I found.

Like many actresses, she’s also a dancer. On top of that, she’s a violinist, a mechanical engineering student, and is into robotics. She embraces both STEM and the arts. So often, people are led to believe that science and art are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. They require many of the same skills, and arguably, they’re more similar than different.

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Sixty Years of the Space Age: Happy Birthday, Sputnik

October 4th, 1957. A sphere of less than a foot radius. And signals detectable by any average Joe with a radio.  Sixty years ago today, Sputnik 1 was launched, and humanity entered the space age.

It didn’t do much aside from orbiting the Earth, but Sputnik changed the world forever. That first little satellite kicked off the space race. It made more people interested in science, both in general and as a potential career path. It contributed to the creation of NASA. It was the first step towards long distance wireless communication. Towards GPS. Towards environmental satellites and space telescopes. Towards rovers gathering data that humans can’t reach. We can’t know what the world would look like if it had never been launched, but it doesn’t require a huge stretch to think that in a world without Sputnik – and perhaps Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space four years later – we wouldn’t have had people on the moon or rovers on Mars. Sputnik may have influenced the development of military technologies, but that is nothing compared to its positive legacy.

Sputnik means travelling companion, and that’s what it was. A different Sputnik took Gagarin into space; all the satellites that bore the same name accompanied the Earth. And the image of that first artificial satellite – that mark of human ingenuity, launched only 54 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight – accompanies all of us as we continue to explore the universe.