History books will always dictate about the great men who have shaped the world to be what it is today. The question is, what about the women? Evidently, the number of women who have contributed to the world mentioned in history is fairly scarce, with most of their achievements being overlooked or cast aside when compared to their male counterparts. Today, most of these incredible women are being brought to light after many, many years of living in the shadows. As such, Echo would like to take this opportunity to boast about the pioneers of women in science, who have paved the way for all the rest of the daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives to walk on.
A name known mainly in the film industry for so long, Hedy Lamarr has become a recent topic of interest for netizens as not only a famed beauty, but one with a flair for advancements related to technology. The Austro-Hungarian-born American actress starred in numerous movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age and had a messy personal life, however, beyond the spotlight she possessed an inquisitive mind, carrying out experiments in her trailer amidst filming movies.
In the early 1940s, when World War II was raging across the world, Hedy Lamarr accompanied by George Antheil had a major breakthrough in which they had devised an idea to prevent messages being intercepted, through ‘frequency hopping’. To put in simpler terms, it was a way of manipulating radio frequencies, to jump simultaneously from one frequency to another, making it impossible for enemies to trace the frequency and having secret messages decoded. It was a way to ensure that no valuable information was passed on to the enemies’ side.
While she didn’t receive much recognition for her invention back then, it paved the way for the creation of Wifi and Bluetooth that we know of today. In short, the concept of frequency hopping helped develop today’s form of wireless communication technology that the world relies on today. In 1997, Hedy Lamarr was presented with the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, nevertheless, she has never gained any money from her inventions, even untill the day of her death.
The actress, inventor portrayed an example of how women were not one-dimensional, but instead could be multifaceted, even back when the patriarchal system was more rampant.
Back when the number of women attending college was scarce, Rosalind Franklin proved to be one of the few anomalies who attended the University of Cambridge and even completed her Ph.D. thesis on the porosity of coal. Rosalind was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer who later moved back to London to work at King’s College. It was there she met Maurice Wilkins, who also turned out to be her partner in their research on finding the structure of DNA. While they were supposed to be working together, they tended to clash with each other, resulting in more conflicts, leading to both of them working separately.
In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were honoured with a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. However, it is said that the biggest contribution that led them to achieving the Nobel Prize, was an X-ray diffraction picture of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin. There are a few narrations on what truly occurred that inspired the former three scientists to create the DNA model. Some say that the famed ‘photograph 51’ by Franklin was stolen and secretly viewed by James Watson and Francis Crick. There are also sources explaining that while Rosalind Franklin did inspire them, their thorough amount of research and working with peers led them to their discovery.
Rosalind wasn’t very well known for getting along with her fellow researchers, preferring to work alone, while Maurice Wilkins had formed a bond with the other two chemists. Regardless, in a paper published in 1954 regarding the molecular structure of DNA, Watson and Crick did admit that without Rosalind’s data, ‘‘the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible’’. Alas, Rosalind was not awarded the Nobel Prize, as it is not awarded posthumously, with her having passed away in 1958 and seemingly robbed off her right to the award.
Ada Lovelace wasn’t just a nobody; in fact, she was the daughter of the renowned British poet Lord Byron, who was known for works such as Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Sadly, Ada’s parents separated not long after having her, with her mother disapproving of Lord Byron’s poetical tendencies and rumoured affairs. Ada would later grow up never to meet her father, and just as her mother wished, she developed a rapid interest in mathematics.
At the age of 12, she had designed a model of a flying machine and although she failed to build one, Ada’s passion in machinery, mathematics, and logic deepened as she grew. This would eventually lead her to meeting Charles Babbage, an inventor who was then inventing a calculating machine, the ‘Difference Engine’. They both became fast friends and developed a friendship that would last for many years to come, with the two exchanging letters frequently on various topics spanning across mathematical ideas.
After her marriage, Ada would later on become the Countess of Lovelace, with her husband inheriting the noble title of Earl of Lovelace. Nonetheless, the analyst’s passion was not to be deterred; as seen when she translated the article of Charles Babbage’s second project, ‘The Analytical Engine’ from French into English with her own additional notes, extending the article from 8000 words to 20000 words.
One of the notes added by Ada cemented her as the first computer programmer in the world. In her infamous note ‘G’, Ada had described the whole computer programme that the Analytical Engine could carry out, which was basically the first algorithm to be computed. Essentially, she had done something that usually only computers would carry out nowadays. During the 19th century, her work was not given much recognition; it was only in the 20th century, when the use of computers became more rampant, and Ada was hailed as a pioneer of modern computer science. In fact, the high-level computer programming language ADA is named after her.
Being the oldest in this list of women in science, Ada Lovelace irrefutably marked a new beginning for women in STEM.
Lise Meitner was the first female German physics professor but was forced to flee from Germany due to her Jewish heritage during World War II. To this day, not many are well aware of her contribution or tend to overlook her role in introducing the concept of nuclear fission. Alongside Otto Hahn, Lise discovered the isotope of protactinium, and later received an award for Leibniz Medal in 1917. Later, she began her research on nuclear fission while teaching physics at the University of Berlin. Alas, her research was halted when Hitler came into power. Lise was forced to leave Germany for her own safety and moved to Stockholm, Sweden.
Nevertheless, she still carried on corresponding with German scientists while working with Niels Bohr in Manne Siegbahn’s laboratory. Back then, not many scientists believed it was possible for an atom to be split into two, especially something as large as uranium. While experimenting, they bombarded neutrons on the uranium atom, and believed that the uranium nucleus was capturing the neutrons to become ‘transuranium elements’. Lise, however, deduced that smaller atoms of the same group were the result of the fission product, such as barium and radium.
Amidst her correspondence, she had urged Hahn to test out her theory, and the product of the so-called ‘neutron bombardment’ which Lise would later conceive it as nuclear fission, was in fact barium and radium. Lise, with the help of her nephew, Otto Frisch had written an article for a scientific journal, detailing the occurrence of the nuclear fission. Despite Lise Meitner being the first scientist to formulate this theory, due to Hahn omitting her name in the published paper, she did not receive a Nobel Prize for her work. Hahn had feared publishing a paper with a Jewish woman’s name would be unfortunate to his career and thus claimed he had discovered everything on his own.
However, Hahn’s explanations regarding his findings were not complete, compared to Lise Meitner’s letter to the editor of the scientific journal. As a matter of fact, Lise was later invited to assist in the Manhattan project, which she adamantly refused, saying that she will have nothing to do with a bomb. When she passed on, the epitaph on her gravestone, written by Otto Frisch, illustrates her will—‘Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity’.
“Let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers”
~émilie du châtelet, French natural philosopher and mathematician.
All these women hailed from a time where the patriarchal system was more dominant. Not to say that this archaic system has faded, but you can still catch glimpses of it, proving to be obstacles for all women alike. However , a thing to take away from here would be, that they did not stop fighting for what they loved. That they choose not to give up. It is up to oneself to etch their own path; the decisions made by one, define who they are. Regardless of what you choose to be—a scientist, a writer, a CEO, or a mother, do not hesitate to reach for the stars.
Written by: Poorani
Edited by: Ruby