Part 3: Not Just Marie Curie: Other Women Physicists You Should Know

September 22, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

It's the third and final installment of this series for Science Literacy Week 2017. There are so many women physicists who have made waves (pun intended) in their fields, and Marie Curie was just one of them. Matthew Jordan of McMaster University listed them all in his catchy tune that he performed live at the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Let's take a look at these women who deserve more recognition for their contributions to physics and other STEM fields.

Source: NYU Women in Science

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-)

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is most well-known for the discovery of pulsars. As a child, she was introduced to astronomy by the many books in her father’s library. Fast forward to 1969 when she began work on her PhD at Cambridge University under the direction of Anthony Hewish, where she assisted in the construction of an 81.5-megahertz radio telescope that was to be used to track quasars. In July 1967, she detected “a bit of scruff” on her chart-recorder papers that tracked across the sky with the stars. The signal was pulsing with great regularity, at a rate of about one pulse per second. Fun Fact: When they were not sure what caused these signals, Dame Jocelyn and her college advisor D. Anthony Hewish labeled the signal LGM for Little Green Men. They thought it could possibly be a beacon from an alien source. Several years later, it was identified as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

In her academic life, she has worked at the University of Southampton, University College London, and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. She’s been a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University. She’s also been a visiting professor at Princeton University and the Dean of Science at the University of Bath, as well as President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002-2004. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College.

In 1974, Dame Jocelyn did not receive recognition for the Nobel Prize in Physics, even though she was the individual who detected the first radio pulsar and assisted in building the four-care radio telescope over two years. (She sometimes reviewed as much as 96 feet of paper data per night!) The Nobel Prize was instead awarded to Antony Hewish (Dame Jocelyn's graduate student at the time) and Martin Ryle (a radio astronomer). In 2015, however, she was awarded the Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award and has won many other awards since 1973. In 1999, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Astronomy and promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.

Source: Rejected Princesses

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Known as “the First Lady of Physics,” Dr. Wu contributed to the Manhattan Project and made history with an experiment that disproved the hypothetical law of conservation of parity. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer – education was valued highly in her family. Her father even founded one of the first elementary schools in China that admitted girls, which is where Dr. Wu’s education began. From 1935-36, she studied under Dr. Jing-Wei Gu, who influenced Dr. Wu’s education greatly. She encouraged Dr. Wu to pursue her graduate studies in the United States, so she visited the University of California at Berkeley in 1936 and stayed to pursue her Ph.D. There, she focused on the fission products of uranium.

She joined the Manhattan Project in 1944 at Columbia University, where she focused on radiation detectors. After the war, she was offered a position at Columbia and she began investigating beta decay, which occurs when the nucleus of one element changes into another element. She made significant contributions, including making the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay. In 1956, she also proved that identical nuclear particles do not always act alike. She worked with physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their theory, but she was not acknowledged.

In her later life, Dr. Wu became more outspoken, protesting the imprisonment in Taiwan of relatives of physicist Kerson Huang in 1950 and journalist Lei Chen in 1960. She spoke out against gender discrimination at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. She also protested the crackdown in China that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In 1981, she retired and devoted her time to educational programs in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and the United States. She also was an advocate for promoting girls in STEM. Despite not winning the Nobel Prize, her career was celebrated with awards such as, but not limited to, the Scientist of the Year Award (Industrial Research Magazine, 1974), the National Medal of Science (1975), and an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1998). She was buried next to her husband, Luke, in a courtyard that is part of the school her father founded.

Source: Glogster

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Sophie Germain is another example of a woman in STEM who defied all odds, starting with her revolutionary attempt in 1795 to enter the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, which women were not allowed to attend – she befriended students there and obtained their lecture notes, then submitted a memoir to mathematician J. L. Lagrange under a male student’s name. Lagrange saw talent in the work and was surprised, after investigation, that the author was a woman. Lagrange was so impressed, he took her on as a mentee and she was able to hobnob with leading mathematicians of the day, but was still not allowed to study at the school.

Prior to this, at the age of 13, she spent most of her time in her father’s library during the French Revolution. She studied mathematics on her own day and night. Fast forward to 1811, when Germain submitted the only entry into a math contest at the French Academy of Sciences. She was not awarded the prize because of her lack of formal education, but two years later, she tried again and received an honourable mention. She then won the contest in 1816 with her paper “Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates.”  After the contest, she continued to work on the theory of elasticity, publishing several more memoirs, which dealt with the “nature, bounds, and extent of elastic surfaces.” Her work in the theory of elasticity proved very important to the field.

Because of winning the contest in 1816, she became the first woman who was not a wife of a member to attend the Academy of Sciences’ sessions. She was praised by the Institut de France and was invited to attend their sessions as well. One of her earlier mentors, Carl Friedrich Gauss, convinced the University of Gottingen to give Germain an honourary degree, but she died of breast cancer before she could receive it.

Source: Famous People

Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972)

Dr. Mayer was the seventh straight generation of German university professors in her family. Prior to becoming a professor, she enrolled at the University of Göttingen in 1924. She intended to become a mathematician, but then found herself more attracted to physics. Almost her entire university career took place in Göttingen, where she was guided by mathematician and physicist Max Born. In 1930, she completed her doctorate in theoretical physics.

In 1930, she headed to the United States and at the end of World War II, she joined the Manhattan Project, and in 1948 she began to research how atomic nuclei are built up, including the so-called “magic numbers” that had long puzzled scientists. It only took her a year to find the solution. She was nicknamed the “Onion Madonna” because she likened the atomic nuclei with an onion – she discovered that protons and neutrons spin along orbits inside the atomic nucleus, like the earth spins around its own axis while moving in an orbit around the sun. She explained that atomic nuclei are like several shells, much like an onion with many shells but nothing in the centre.

Dr. Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Dr. Hans D. Jensen and Dr. Eugene Wigner in 1963. She was the second Nobel laureate who was a woman, after Marie Curie.  After her death in 1972, the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award was created by the American Physical Society to honour young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. The University of California, San Diego, hosts an annual Maria Goeppert Mayer symposium, bringing together female researches to discuss current science. A crater on Venus was also named after Dr. Mayer.

Source: Wikipedia

Margaret Hamilton (1936-)

At 24, Dr. Hamilton had an undergraduate degree in mathematics and had gotten a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was planning to support her husband through his three-year stint at Harvard Law and then she planned to get a graduate degree in math, but the Apollo space program began and Hamilton began her legacy as a mathematician and computer scientist.

At MIT, she worked on the SAGE Project, to create a computer system that could predict weather systems and track their movements through simulators. As a software programmer, she was the first one to get the program to actually work, and her efforts led to her position at NASA. Later, she and her colleagues wrote the code for the Apollo 11 mission’s guidance computer that made the Moon landing possible. This code was compiled in notebooks that stood about as tall as she did. (See a fun picture of this here.) But not only did Hamilton write the code, she also saved the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission from aborting the mission.

Three minutes before the Lunar lander reached the Moon’s surface, several computer alarms were triggered. The computer was overloaded with interrupts caused by incorrectly phased power supplied to the lander’s rendezvous radar. The guidance software could not complete all of its tasks in real time and had to postpone some of them. But, Hamilton’s priority alarm displays interrupted the astronauts’ normal displays to warn them that there was an emergency, so the astronauts could decide whether or not they wanted to land. In Hamilton’s words, “The computer was programmed to do more than recognize error conditions. A complete set of recovery programs was incorporated into the software. The software’s action, in this case, was to eliminate lower priority tasks and re-stablish the more important ones…If the computer hadn’t recognized this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was.”

During the Apollo space mission days, Hamilton coined the term “software engineering.” This gave the field more legitimacy than it had experienced prior. She challenged the male dominated technology field, which allowed women to enter STEM fields for years to come. She was awarded the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award by the Association for Women in Computing in 1986 and the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.

Source: CBC

Harriet Brooks (1876-1933)

The first Canadian on our list is Harriet Brooks, Canada's first woman nuclear physicist. In 1901, the physics department at McGill was born, and Brooks graduated that same year with one of the University's first Master's degrees - and the first Master's degree in Electromagnetism achieved by a woman. There is only one comprehensive biography of Brooks, who worked with all three well known pioneers of physics: Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, and J.J. Thomson; but she was a trailblazing genius who never got enough credit for the work she did.

Brooks actually co-authored several studies with Ernest Rutherford, who pioneered McGill's physics research at the time. While working with Rutherford, Brooks discovered that a substance emitting from radioactive thorium was actually an undiscovered element that we now call radon. She described her calculation as "the first measurement of the half-life of the thorium emanation (radion-220)." Scientists before had doubted elements could transform from one to another, but Brooks proved them wrong. She also discovered that radioactive elements decay from one into another, and then another, in a predictable chain called a "decay series." These predictable transformations are now used to date ancient rocks and fossils. Without Brooks, these methods may not have been available to us for many years. Geoff Rayner-Canham, a chemistry professor at Newfoundland's Memorial University, wrote an article about Brooks, and later, in this interview, he admits that throughout history, Ernest Rutherford was attributed with discovering radon and that in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, it published an article saying as much. Rayner-Canham wrote a letter to the publication saying, "No, he was the professor who sat in his office smoking his pipe while Harriet Brooks did this."

She worked with Marie Curie in 1906 in Paris, and in 1904 she moved to Barnard College in New York City to tutor Physics. She was engaged to be married to a physicist from Columbia, but the Dean of Barnard College insisted she resign, saying "the good of the College and the dignity of the woman's place in the home demand that your marriage shall be a resignation." She broke off the engagement, but also left Barnard College. In her resigation letter, she wrote, "I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries. I cannot conceive how women’s colleges, inviting and encouraging women to enter professions can be justly founded or maintained denying such a principle."

Source: The Strong Woman's Club

Dr. Renée Hložek (1983-)

Cosmology is Dr. Renée Hložek's jam. She studies a variety of problems in theoretical and observational cosmology through observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background, Type Ia supernovae and Baryon Acoustic Oscillations. She studied at the University of Pretoria and the University of Cape Town, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2011, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She is also a TED Senior Fellow and now is a professor of Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Hložek was inspired to become a scientist simply because she loved math and physics growing up. She watched the skies as a child growing up in South Africa and wanted to "understand astronomy." Through her university, she started a program where one could study extra science once a month for three years and your tuition would be covered. Because of this program, she was exposed to a broad range of science courses - physics and chemistry, geology, and astronomy. She finds that science is like solving a mystery, a problem that must be unravelled. Her passion for science has translated into communicating science to the public and schoolchildren, and she has spoken at events such as TEDxPrincetonU. She has also published articles on Medium, and her TED-Ed Original lesson on the death of the universe can be seen here. She is still young in her career, but the paths ahead look promising. She can be followed on Twitter at @reneehlozek.

Thanks for reading about these women who have paved the way for future women STEM students, professionals, and afficionados. Next month, for Canadian Women's History Month, our blog will feature Canadian women in STEM who have also revolutionized their fields. Stay tuned for that, and don't forget to check out Science Literacy Week 2017.

Read part 1 of this series here and part 2 here.
If you're still looking for something to do for Science Literacy Week, check out our blog post with some ideas here.