Part 2: Not Just Marie Curie: Other Women Physicists You Should Know

September 20, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Remember that catchy tune by Matthew Jordan of McMaster University we covered on Monday? We continue his list of accomplished women physicists included in his song. It is an unfortunate reality that throughout STEM history, some women have had their work claimed by men, or have faded from history. As part of Science Literacy Week, this post gives much-deserved recognition to those women for their contributions to physics.  

Source: Wikipedia

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)

Not only was du Châtelet a physicist, she was also a philosopher, mathematician, and author. du Châtelet focused on natural philosophy, particularly that of Newton, Leibniz and Christian Wolff. Her advanced abilities in physics and mathematics made her especially able to write capably about Newton's physics. She thus contributed to the shift in France away from an acceptance of Cartesian physics and toward the embrace of Newtonian physics.

du Châtelet was born into lesser nobility - her father was Louis Nicholas le Tonnelier de Breteuil. As a young girl, she was given academic lessons by private tutors and also lessons in fencing, riding, and gymnastics. She was encouraged by a family friend, M de Mézières, to also study mathematics. Despite not being allowed to discuss research topics, mathematics, or science in the cafés in Paris (because she was a woman), she persisted and even showed up in 1734 at the Café Gradot dressed as a man - not as an attempt to fool people, but to make a statement on what she believed was a ridiculous rule. She was then allowed to participate in discussions.

In 1738, du Châtelet submitted an essay to a competition at the Paris Academy of Sciences entitled "on the nature and propagation of fire." She was accepted as a member of the learned Republic of Letters. She bested the executive director of the Paris Academy of Sciences on the issue of the proper formula for kinetic energy, saw her writings on science translated into Italian and German, and was elected to the Bologna Academy of Science. Shortly before she passed away, she completed a translation of Newton's "Principia" and her own commentary on it, which was published posthumously in 1759 in its final form.

Source: Anita Borg Institute

Dr. Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Dr. Grace Hopper had a career in the US military with an emphasis on computers. She studied math and physics at Vassar College and graduated in 1928. She received a master's degree in mathematics in 1930 from Yale University, and then earned a Ph.D. in 1934 at Yale, becoming one of the first few women to do so. She joined the US Naval Reserve at once in 1943 when the Navy began to take women, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she learned to program a Mark I computer. The Mark I was 15 meters long, 2.5 meters high, and was made up of wheels, shafts, gears, and switches. In the Navy, then-Lt. Hopper was asked to write an operating manual for a Mark I. By 1951, she was working for a company called Remington Rand, where she tried to persuade her employers to let programmers call up chunks of code called "subroutines" in familiar words, to say things like, "Subtract income tax from pay." She called this process a "compiler," and she wrote the first one in her spare time. In computer programming, a compiler is a program that transforms source code written from one computer language into another, usually less complex, language. Compilers were revolutionary at the time. Dr. Hopper said herself, "I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic."

Dr. Hopper also developed the programming language COBOL, which stood for "COmmon Business-Oriented Language." It is still used in order-processing business software today. She worked with COBOL as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group, and was promoted to captain in 1973. She pioneered work throughout the 1970s designing and implementing technology standards. Her tests were later adopted by the National Bureau of Standards and helped to shape the future of programming. Fun fact: She is often credited with coining the term "bug" in relation to compueters, because in 1947, she literally found a bug in a computer that was causing it to fail.

In her lifetime, Dr. Hopper won 40 honourary degrees from universities around the world. She won 9 military awards and countless other awards, including the 1991 National Medal of Technology, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal in 1986 upon her retirement, and even Grace Hopper College at Yale University was named after her in 2017.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder

Dr. Deborah Jin (1968-2016)

A pioneer in polar molecular quantum chemistry, Dr. Deborah Jin was born into a STEM family - her mother was a physicist working as an engineer, and her father was a physicist. She studied physics at Princeton University, and received her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1995 under the well-known Dr. Thomas Felix Rosenbaum (current president of California Institute of Technology and a physicist who has contributed greatly to the study of quantum mechanics). Dr. Jin made major contributions to science in her short lifetime. In 1997, she formed a group at JILA, the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado. Within two years, she developed the ability to create the first quantum degenerate gas of fermionic atoms. In 2003, Dr. Jin and her team were the first to condense pairs of fermionic atoms. She continued to advance the frontiers of ultracold science, and in 2008, she and her colleague, Jun Ye, managed to cool polar molecules that possess a large electric dipole moment to ultracold temperatures. In other words, Dr. Jin's work has helped improve understanding of superconductors - materials in which all resistance to an electrical current disappears at temperatures ranging from near absolute zero to as "warm" as around -170 degrees Fahrenheit. In this article on Scientific American, Jin is quoted as saying, "The behavior that emerges when you have a lot of particles present is technologically relevant. What 100,000 atoms do is not 100,000 times what one atom does." In terms of awards, Dr. Jin won many, a few of which notably were the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award, Scientific American's "Research Leader of the Year," and the Institute of Physics Isaac Newton Medal.

Dr. Jin passed away in 2016 after a battle with cancer. After her passing, the American Physical Society renamed its prestigious DAMOP graduate student prize after Deborah Jin to acknowledge her impact in the field of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. The University of Colorado Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano says of Dr. Jin, "Deborah Jin was the definition of world-class faculty. The international scientific community has lost a giant, and our campus has lost a mentor to young scientists and an inspiration to female scientists."

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Sally Ride (1951-2012)

After receiving a PhD in Physics in 1975 from Stanford University, Dr. Sally Ride was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978. She completed a one-year training and evaluation period, making her eligible for assignment as a Mission Specialist on future space shuttle flight crews. Dr. Ride was a Mission Specialist on STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 18, 1983. As a crew member of this mission, she was the first woman to go to space. On this mission, her primary task was working with the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS, aka Canadarm).

She also served as a Mission Specialist on STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. Their mission was 8 days long and deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of the Earth with the OSTS-3 pallet and Large Format Camera and demonstrated potential satellite refueling with a spacewalk and associated hydrazine transfer. In 1985, Dr. Ride was assigned to the crew of STS 61-M, but mission training was terminated in January 1986 after the Challenger accident. Instead, Dr. Ride served as a member of the Presidential Commission investigating the accident.

In 1989, Dr. Ride joined the faculty at the University of California San Diego as a professor of Physics and Director of the University of California’s Space Institute. She became passionate about helping women and girls study math and science, and came up with the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of the Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. The pictures can then be studied by the students. She was added to the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003, and until her death in 2012, Dr. Ride was busy helping women and girls study science, writing science books for students and teachers, and working with science programs and festivals around the United States.

Source: Alchetron

Dr. Helen Quinn (1943-)

Another force at Stanford University, Dr. Helen Quinn is an Australian-born particle physicist and educator. She has made major contributions to theoretical physics, including the Peccei-Quinn theory, which implies a corresponding symmetry of nature. Working with Howard Georgi and Steven Weinberg, she showed how three particle interactions (strong, electromagnetic, and weak), which look very different as we see their impact in the world around us, become very similar in extremely high-energy processes and might be three aspects of a single unified force. She has also done extensive work on dark matter, which she explains briefly in this video

In addition, Dr. Quinn is a science educator and served as the chair of the National Research Council Committee that wrote “The Framework for K-12 Science Education Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas” (which can be downloaded for free here). About the Framework, she says, “I am really, really proud of the Framework and the potential it has for guiding science education in a good direction.”  When it comes to education, she maintains science education before university is not stressed enough and it is important not just to do experiments, but also to “think about argument from evidence.”

She has won multiple honours, including in 1984 with her appointment as Fellow of the American Physical Society, “for contributions to gauge theories of elementary particles, including influential work on renormalization in grand unified theories and studies of CP violation which led to the idea of the axion." In addition, she won an Honourary Degree as Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, from the University of Notre Dame, was appointed an Honourary Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005, and in 2016 won the Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics from the American Institute of Physics.

It's Science Literacy Week, from September 18-24! The last installment of this 3-part blog series can be found here. Read part 1 here!
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