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Female Stars in the Galaxy of Science

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As a double-winner of the Nobel Prize, Marie Curie brought global prestige to the Nobel institution in the early part of the Twentieth Century. But few names of Women scientists have been noticed, leave alone, celebrated in the annals of Nobel Prize history ever since. For instance, how many have heard of Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Chemistry Nobel in 1964 for determining the structures of important biochemical substances using X-ray techniques, and was a key figure in the famous Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs? And, how many have cared to know who Maria Goeppert-Mayer was? (She was a co-laureate of the Physics Nobel in 1963 tor findings related to nuclear shell structure, and remains the only woman after Marie curie, to have won the Nobel Prize in this category.)

marie curieSimilar fundamental, anxious questions could be raised about Gerty Cori, the first Nobel Prize winning woman of America and the first female medical scientist to be inducted into the Nobel hall of fame (for identifying the course of catalytic conversion of glycogen), as well as Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Italian neurologist who co-win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986 (for discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor) and is the oldest living, longest-lived Nobel laureate today. (She completed 102 Years in April 2011).

However, the real question here is not about women Nobel scientists being non-celebrities, but about the deeper issue of gender-discrimination in the matter of professional recognition, including the award of top international prizes. Indeed, all through history, virtually all the leading women of science whether they received or missed the Nobel Prize have suffered discouragement and rejection, harassment and humiliation, and torture and persecution in varying degrees at the hands of the ruling male scientists, solely because they happened to be women. It Is little wonder then that only 16 women have so far appeared in the catalogue of science Nobel laureates since the Institution Of the Nobel Science Prize in 1901.

imageParticular mention must be made here of four all-time great scientists who, as widely alleged science community were denied their share of the Nobel glory on the mere grounds of their gender. One of the most publicized stories on this subject involves Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), the English molecular biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, who was known as “The Dark Lady of DNA”, and who made pioneering contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.

The case of Lisa Meitner (1878 -1968), the Austrian-born Swedish physicist, whom Einstein called “Our own Marie Curie" and who co-discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn, is no less widely sited as a ‘flagrant omission’ in Nobel controversy literature. The two other scientists who richly deserved but never received the Nobel Prize were: Chien-Shiung wu (1912 -1997), the Chinese-American Physicist who was halled “The First Lady of Modern Physics" and "Chinese Marie Curie,” and who worked on the fabled Manhattan project and altered our very perception of the structure of the universe; and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the British radio astrophysicists who was associated with her thesis-supervisor Antony-Hewish in the Nobel-prize-winning co-discovery of pulsars (rotating neutron stars).

ada yonathWhen the prestigious New Scientist magazine, voted Marie CurieThe most inspirational woman scientist of all time” in July 2009 (Marie Curie, in fact, deserved to be proclaimed “The most inspirational scientist,” wlthout the gender adjective), several of the above names were in the top-I0 list along with Mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria; Ada King (English mathematician familiar to computer scientists as history’s first computer programmer, and a key worker on Babbage’s Analytical Engine); Marie - Sophie Germain (French mathematician of “Elasticity Theory” fame), Rachel Carson (American marine biologist who wrote Silent Spring that led to an extensive ban on DDT and certain other pesticides); and the legendary primatologist-ethologist Jane Goodal.

Some other historical figures that spring to one’s mind in this context are Emmy Noether (1882-1935), one of the greatest female mathematicians, who made singal contributions to the development of relativity theory as well as abstract algebra; Frieda Robscheit-Robbins (1893-1973), an illustrious pathologist who collaborated with George Whipple on his Nobel-prize-winning endeavour for curing pernicious anaemia ; Ellen Gleditsch (1879-1968), one of Marie Curies distinguished research associates, who became a leader in chemical radioactivity and an ardent champion of the cause of women in academia and science, and Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), a Davy-Medal-winning crystallographer, who achieved a number of firsts for a female scientist including ‘first lady Fellow of the Royal Society’ and ‘first female president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.’

It certainly strains our credulity to accept that gender-bias of a severe degree was prevalent in advanced countries as well and that even world-renowned scientists were terribly sexist, but fact remains that almost until recently girls were actively discouraged from pursuing science education even at the primary school level in all parts of the world, leave alone anti-feminine prejudice at the Nobel Prize level.

bell-burnell.jpgThankfully, we have come a long way from all that sordid history, and women have now emerged as a force to reckon with across the sphere of science. Women are actually making waves at the very cutting edge of science today as powerfully instanced by the Nobel conquests of three outstanding scientists in 2009: Ada Yonath from Israel (Chemistry Prize for investigation into the structure and function of the ribosome, shared with Thomas Steitz and Indian-born Venkatraman Ramakrishnan); and Elizabeth Blackburn and Carolyn Grieder, both from the U.S. (Physiology or Medicine Prize for research related to chromosomal protection by telomeres and telomerase, shared with Jack Szostak).

It makes great sense to draw inspiration from the lives of yesterday’s female giants of science, who rose above formidable roadblocks and made groundbreaking contributions to knowledge and society by virtue of their genius vision and cultivated abilities. There is no doubt that the female stars in the galaxy of science carry enough gravitational pull to effect the “Paradigm Reshift" from high-technology to high-science that is urgently needed in with education and research today.

By Sushant Rawat (Writer and Contributor, Science Panorama)

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    I can rant about this all day tbh. This is a long read, but worth it!
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