Part 1: Not Just Marie Curie: Other Women Physicists You Should Know

September 18, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Don't get me wrong - Marie Curie deserves recognition in her own right, for the contributions she made to physics, putting herself at risk while studying polonium and radium, and being the first woman to win a Nobel prize (and the only person to win an award in two different fields - physics and chemistry). But what about all the other woman physicists who don't get enough credit for the work they've done?

Matthew Jordan, a faculty member in mathematics at McMaster University, addressed this very question in a song he wrote and posted on Facebook. He came up with it for the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, and performed it live there. You can hear the original song on Facebook here. The pre-chorus repeats: "There's far more women physicists than only Marie Curie." Let's take a look at the other woman physicists Matthew mentions in his song.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

Born Amalie but always called "Emmy," she was born in Erlangen, Germany. At the age of 18, she decided to take classes in math at the University of Erlangen, where her father was a professor in mathematics. The university refused to let her take classes, because she was a woman. She was, however, able to audit classes, and then took the exam that permitted her to be a doctoral student in mathematics. She passed the test and then was able to study for five more years, eventually receiving a degree in mathematics. She was the second woman to have done so at the university.

She is known for her profound theorems in ring theory, but she most notably changed the way mathematicians think about math. Her colleague P.S. Alexandroff said about her, "She taught us to think in simple, and thus general, terms... homomorphic image, the group or ring with operators, the ideal... and not in complicated algebraic calculations." She cleared a path toward the discovery of new algebraic patterns. Her work is typically split into 3 epochs: 1907-1919, in which she devoted her time to algebraic invariant theory, Galois Theory, and physics. One of her theorems, known as "Noether's Theorem," is one of the most significant contributions in the development of modern physics. In her second epoch from 1920-1926, she concentrated on the theory of mathematical rings. She developed the abstract and conceptual approach to algebra, resulting in principles unifying topology, logic, geometry, algebra, and linear algebra. In her third epoch, from 1927-1935, she focused primarily on non-commutative algebras, representation theory, hyper-complex numbers, and linear transformations. She was awarded the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in Mathematics in 1932.

Check out this entertaining and informative video explaining Noether's Theorem.

Source: Astrobites

Dr. Vera Rubin (1928-2016)

Dr. Vera Rubin was a groundbreaking astrophysicist, known for discovering evidence of dark matter. In the 1960s and 70s, she worked with astronomer Kent Ford, studying the behaviour of spiral galaxies. They discovered that stars outside the galaxy were moving as fast as the ones in the middle, which didn't fit Newtonian gravitational theory. Adam Frank, an astrophysicist who writes for NPR's 13.7 blog, is quoted in this article, saying you can't see dark matter, "but you know it's with you because it messes with the things you can see." He goes on to write that Dr. Rubin's work showed that "all spiral galaxies were spinning way too fast to be accounted for by the gravitational pull of their 'luminous' mtter (the stuff we see in a telescope). Rubin and others reasoned there had to be a giant sphere of invisible stuff surrounding the stars in these galaxies, tugging on them and speeding up their orbits around the galaxy's center."

Her love for astronomy started at age 10, when she would watch the stars revolve from her bedroom in Washington, D.C., United States. Her father helped her build a telescope and would accompany her to amateur astronomers' meetings. She was granted a scholarship to the prestigious women's college Vassar. There, she graduated as the only astronomy major in 1948. She went on to study physics at Cornell for her master's degree, then at Georgetown University for her Ph.D. She taught at Georgetown, then took a research position at Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where she began her work with Kent Ford. She is famously quoted as saying, "What you see in a spiral galaxy is not what you get." She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 1993 was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Source: Twitter

Dr. Lisa Randall (1962-)

Professor Lisa Randall studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University. Her research connects theoretical insights to puzzles in our current understanding of the properties and interactions of matter. Her work has involved improving understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics, supersymmetry, baryogenesis, cosmological inflation, and dark matter. Dr. Randall’s research also explores ways to experimentally test and verify ideas and her current research focuses in large part on the Large Hadron Collider and dark matter searches and models.

Dr. Randall is the model-building type of physicist, one who uses what we already know to propose "new quantum field theories." Dr. Randall is famous for papers that proposed two models of "warped spacetime." These papers are now among the most cited papers in particle physics. She is also a science communicator: her recent book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, received critical acclaim.

Dr. Randall has won various awards and has received much praise for her work. In 2007, she was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People under the section for "Scientists & Thinkers." In 2012 she won the Andrew Gemant Award for her substantial contributions to physics, and in 2007 she won the E.A. Wood Science Writing Award. She earned her PhD from Harvard University and held professorships at MIT and Princeton University before returning to Harvard in 2001. She is also the recipient of honorary degrees from Brown University, Duke University, Bard College, and the University of Antwerp.

Source: Famous People

Dr. Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Dr. Lise Meitner was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945, although she collaborated with Otto Hahn (who did win) in the discovery of nuclear fission and gave the first explanation of fission process. She was celebrated after World War II as "the mother of the atomic bomb," but actually had nothing to do with it. Her true scientific contribution became obscure as time went on, and unfortunately she is not the first woman to have been overlooked for her achievements.

Dr. Meitner was the second woman to receive a PhD in Physics from the University of Vienna. She joined Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, in Berlin in 1907 for post-doctoral study and research, but was not permitted to access the laboratories of the Berlin Institute for Chemistry where she worked as an unpaid research scientist. The patriarchal attitudes of the time prohibited women's entry "lest their hair catch fire!" While working with Planck, Dr. Meitner rubbed elbows with names such as Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrenfest (an Austrian and Dutch theoretical physicist who made major contributions to the field of statistical mechanics and its relations with quantum mechanics). Her discovery of nuclear fission came just after her dramatic escape from Nazi Germany - and her lab partner, Otto Hahn, was able to remain in Berlin throughout the Third Reich.

In 1945, after beginning a new life in Sweden, Dr. Meitner visited the United States and finally got some recognition for her accomplishments. Eleanor Roosevelt stated in an NBC Radio interview with Lise Meitner, "we are proud of your contributions as a woman in science." She was awarded numerous honourary degrees by universities in the United States and in Europe, as well as the Enrico Fermi Prize, Atomic Energy Commission (U.S.) with Hahn and Strassmann in 1966. She spent most of her 70s and 80s traveling, encouraging woman students to "remember that science can bring both joy and satisfaction to your life."

Source: UCLA

Dr. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

On July 25, 1920, Dr. Rosalind Franklin was born into an affluent and influential Jewish family in Notting Hill, London, England. She knew from age 15 that she wanted to be a scientist, and in primary and secondary school, she excelled in science. She studied chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge, and was awarded Second Class Honours in her finals, which at that time was accepted as a bachelor's degree in qualifications for employment. She worked as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Assocation, where she studied the porosity of coal - work that was the basis of her 1945 PhD. thesis "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal."

She was appointed to the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris in 1946 and was taught X-ray diffraction by Jacques Mering. This played an important role in her research that led to the discovery of "the secret of life" - the structure of DNA. In 1951, she was offered a 3-year research scholarship at King's College in London, where she set up the X-ray crystallography unit. She was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers - "Photograph 51" was a nickname given to one of the famous X-ray diffraction images, evidence that was crucial to identifying the structure of DNA. She presented her unpublished data at a lecture at King's College. Without Dr. Franklin's permission, King's College physicist Dr. Maurice Wilkins showed biologist Dr. James Watson and his associate Dr. Francis Crick the X-Ray data that Dr. Franklin had obtained, which began a rocky research relationship between Drs. Watson, Wilkins, Crick, and Franklin. It was Drs. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, however, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their famous DNA model - using Dr. Franklin's photograph and their own data. Dr. Franklin had already passed away in 1958 from cancer, and the Nobel committe does not give posthumous prizes.

It's Science Literacy Week, from September 18-24! The next installment of this 3-part blog series can be found here.
In the meantime, we highly recommend the book Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World by Rachel Swaby for more profiles of pioneering woman scientists (not just physicists). Follow our Twitter and Facebook accounts for more Science Literacy posts, and visit the Science Literacy website for events in your area.