From bullet proof vests to chocolate chip cookies, women have contributed enormously to the scientific community over the years. Ellen Murray asks where the recognition is
Scientists, as a general rule, go woefully uncelebrated by our society as a whole, with a larger emphasis focused on praising celebrity culture. Women in science, however, have been ignored to an even larger extent and even though the gender balance in research is reaching more acceptable levels, women are wholly less recognised for their achievements.
This recognition is evident in people’s general knowledge about famous scientists. If many people were asked to name a scientist that made a very notable impact on the history of science, most would be inclined to recommend the name Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. The most scientifically illiterate person would probably even be able to vaguely recall Newton’s theory of gravity or that E=mc².
An answer they probably wouldn’t give is the name of the world’s first computer programmer. They wouldn’t know that it was a 19th century mathematician called Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of the infamous poet Lord Byron, who was the creator of the first encoded algorithm to be processed by a machine. Next time you are watching a funny cat video on YouTube, think of her.
Back in 2012, popular online blogger Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal published a comic on his website titled ‘Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.’ The comic highlighted the many great achievements of one Nikola Tesla, who discovered alternating current and changed the face of modern science as we know it.
What the comic also pointed out was the outrage of Tesla’s contributions to the world being misrepresented by history as the inventions of Thomas Edison. This shocking revelation that Edison was an idea-stealing, profit-oriented jerk ensured that The Oatmeal’s fundraising campaign to buy Tesla’s Tower in New York had, by May 2013, raised $2.1 million for the purchase of the property.
Plans are now underway to build a Nikola Tesla museum there, and rightfully so. The monument will be a testament to humanity’s inability to recognise and celebrate its most brilliant minds. Rosalind Franklin is another example of a scientist who didn’t get her due praise in a similar fashion to Telsa.
Franklin, who discovered the structure of DNA, did not receive the 1962 Nobel Prize along with her male colleagues, who conveniently neglected to mention that her contribution was the basis of their work. Then there is Celia Payne, the first female Professor of Science in Harvard University, who discovered that the composition of stars was made mostly from hydrogen and helium.
Never heard of her? That’s because her theory was dismissed by the astrometry community upon its initial publication. That is, until four years later, when a man called Henry Norris Russell confirmed her theory and got the credit. These are two examples of women scientists who have been ignored by history, despite the immense importance of their discoveries.
Similarly to Tesla’s recent rebirth of cultural significance, there has also been an increase in the desire to acknowledge the impact women have had on the scientific world. Optimystical Studios, an online company that designs jewellery based on pop-cultural phenomena, have launched a ‘Heroes and Inspirations: Lady Scientists’ jewellery line whereby people can purchase items of jewellery that reflect the amazing scientific work by these women.
In their mission statement they write, “Albert Einstein, with his crazy hair and inspirational quotes, has been the king of the popular scientist. We’d like to change that. Each of the ladies of science we’ll be introducing has just as much claim on the throne as Albert.” It’s a great start, but is it enough?
The main problem is rooted in our historical and cultural view of the sciences as a ‘male-only’ area of discovery. This outdated view is being reflected in the gender gap in scientific studies today, with 59% of graduating third-level science students being male.
While the statistics of women graduating with science degrees and holding high-level jobs in their particular field of science have shown a slight increase over the past two decades, the numbers still remain mournfully low. This is perhaps to be expected with the underrepresentation of female scientists and inventors in our history books and current media.
This lack of acknowledgement in all forms of media is stifling the curiosity of a young generation of girls pursuing a career in science. The world around us and the enthusiasm to learn as much as we can should have no gender constrictions.
We must translate this ungendered desire to discover the world around us in our recognition of women scientists and their contributions to the world, alongside the ones of their male counterparts. To all the women scientists out there who have lead the way for others, we salute you.
The Google Doodle celebrating Ada Lovelace’s 197th Birthday on the 10th December 2012.