Science is the frontier of discovery and the foundation of human advancement. People working in scientific fields have shaped our lives, with some of the greatest pioneers being women. Here are five women in science who have changed how we perceive and understand the world around us and beyond.
1. Marie Curie
Marie Curie was a physicist and mathematician recognised for her discovery and research of radioactive elements. Marie and her husband Pierre discovered Polonium in 1898 after isolating it within the radioactive mineral pitchblende. This element was eponymously named after Curie’s birthplace Poland as the nation was under divided rule at the time, and thought that naming it so would shed light on the political struggles.
A few months later they proposed another radioactive element within pitchblende, Radium, but this wasn’t discovered until 1902. As well as discovering elements she also made huge strides in cancer research via radiology and the applications of X-rays to determine internal injuries.
Her pioneering work made her the first woman to receive two Nobel prizes (1903 for Physics and 1911 for Chemistry), however the dangers of radiation were not fully understood at the time and in 1934 Marie Curie died of pernicious anaemia; a condition directly related to radiation exposure. Long after her death her achievements are still being recognised and in 1995 became the first woman to be placed in the Pantheon.
2. Patricia Era Bath
Not only a pioneer in ophthalmology, Patricia Era Bath was the first woman to head a post-graduate training program in the field, as well as serve on staff at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science and UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Bath was also the first African American woman to hold a patent for a medical invention, the Laserphaco Probe, used to remove cataracts via laser. She went on to found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness restoring the sight of many with her invention.
After retiring from medical practice Bath became professor of ophthalmology at St. George’s University and Howard University’s School of Medicine. She was truly at the forefront of her field, honoured as a Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993.
3. Dian Fossey
Dr. Dian Fossey was an American primatologist dedicated to the conservation of endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Setting up a camp in the Virungas Mountains in 1967, Fossey was able to study the social interactions of gorillas. The camp was named Karisoke, an amalgam of the nearby mountains Karisimbi and Bisoke, and has become the most influential research centre for gorilla study in the world.
Fossey was well-known for her respect for wildlife, realising that to fully understand complex primate social life, she herself would have to be accepted into the gorilla group. This gave her unprecedented access to observe the interactions, hierarchy and individuality expressed in gorillas.
Her commitment to conservation had her fending off poachers and cattle herders, protecting the gorillas from agricultural encroachment and wildlife trafficking, succeeding many times through what she referred to as “active conservation”. This consisted of wearing masks and burning snares to frighten poachers and sometimes even engage in direct confrontation. Considering these tactics, and clear opposition to the lack of conservation action from the Rwandan government at the time, Dian Fossey’s passion for these primates is thought to have led to her tragic murder in 1985. Her legacy continues to this day.
4. Vera Rubin
American astronomer Vera Rubin was responsible for discovering crucial evidence for the existence of Dark Matter after her studies into the rotation of galaxies detected an anomaly. She observed that galaxies weren’t rotating as they should under the Newtonian gravitational model; ergo some other force had to be present.
The amount of luminous matter (all the stuff we can see) should in theory be more concentrated in the centre of a spiral galaxy, and dissipate nearer the edge when using luminosity as an indicator of mass, but this is not the case. From the centres of the galaxies measured, Rubin’s readings presented either a constant level of mass outgoing from the centre, or increases in mass as luminous matter decreased nearer the edges. This meant that Dark Matter was in fact balancing out the lack of luminous matter.
The concept of invisible or missing matter has been around since 1915, and the term Dark Matter since 1922. However, the most prominent evidence for its existence is a direct result of Rubin’s work. Around 27% of the universe is Dark Matter which makes Rubin’s research critical to our future understanding of the universe.
5. Margaret Hamilton
After achieving her degree in mathematics Hamilton became a programmer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to support her family and as a stopgap between her academic pursuits, but instead of going for her postgrad remained in the labs to spearhead one of the most revolutionary advances in computer software development.
MIT was the first recipient of a NASA contract to develop the guidance and navigation systems for Apollo spacecraft and Margaret Hamilton was lead software engineer. Her work comprised writing and hardwiring the source-code for the crewed Apollo missions, including the lunar module ‘Eagle’ that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface. Her software was capable of righting and rerouting energy for essential tasks by shedding less important ones.
Hamilton stringently tested her code over and over, as one error could crash a ship. Her commitment resulted in coding so robust not a single bug was found, and was used in aerospace guidance systems long-after Apollo. Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, the highest civilian award of the USA.
Science holds the key to solving all the problems we face; chemistry, virology and bacteriology for medicine and disease prevention; astronomy, physics and cosmology for space exploration and understanding our place in the universe; ecology and biology for protecting wildlife and tackling climate change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For a long time, science was patriarchal but is now a diverse and accepting sector, with these women and many others like them inspiring the next generation of pioneers.
By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern