|Ladies Who Blinded Us With Science||| Print ||
For of you who don’t know, today is Pi Day – the holiday celebrating the mathematical constant π (fun fact: it’s also the birthday of Albert Einstein!).
Pi Day is celebrated a number of ways across the United States: discussions on the relevance of π, festivities honoring Einstein, and my personal favorite, excessive consumption of pie. But since I can’t give you all pie through the computer (though I wish I could – get on that technology, scientists!), in honor of Pi Day I present to you a list of truly incredible women in mathematics, science, and engineering. Enjoy!
Aglaonike of Thessaly (2nd Century BCE)
Hypatia (4th Century)
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1799)
Ada Lovelace (1815 -1852)
Not only was Ada Lovelace the only legitimate daughter of poet (and playboy extraordinaire) Lord Byron, but she was also a mathematical genius. As a young woman, she took interest in Charles Babbage’s early work on the analytical engine (a mechanical general-purpose computer – Babbage couldn’t complete his work due to lack of funding). In 1842, she translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s description of the engine to English, adding her own extensive and in-depth annotations. Her notes – which were longer than the original article itself – included an algorithm for processing by machine, aka the world’s first computer program. Babbage himself described her as the “Enchantress of Numbers,” and history remembers her as the “World’s First Computer Programmer.”
Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)
Beatrix Potter is perhaps most remembered for her work in children’s literature – The Tale of Peter Rabbit, for example. But she was also fascinated by the natural sciences, and pursued the study of mushrooms – mycology – with great interest. A talented artist, she produced many beautiful and scientifically accurate illustrations and watercolors of her specimens. Encouraged by noted naturalist Charles McIntosh, she delved deeper into her study of mycology and in 1895 developed a theory of germination of microscopic fungi spores. She presented her research and findings in a paper titles “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society of London, the premier society for the study of taxonomy. She eventually withdrew her paper, realizing her samples were contaminated, but that did not stop her from continuing her studies.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867 – 1934)
You can’t really have a list of notable women (or even just people) in the sciences without Madame Curie. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and remains to this day the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes. She was awarded her first Nobel Prize in 1903 in physics, sharing with husband Pierre Curie and doctoral advisor Henri Becquerel for their research in radioactivity. She was again awarded a Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry for her discovery of the elements of polonium (named in honor of her native Poland) and radium and the isolation of the latter. In spite of her genius, she was never elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences – the first woman ever elected would be her student, Marguerite Perey in 1962. Curie died in 1934 due to her prolonged exposure to radiation – the negative effects were not known, and she often carried tubes of radioactive material in her pockets. Her legacy lives on: her daughter, Irène, was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband (and their children are both esteemed scientists in their own fields today).
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
If I’m going to wax lyrical about Mme. Curie’s two Nobel Prizes, I have to mention perhaps one of the greatest Nobel snubs in scientific history: the story of Lise Meitner. Born into an Austrian Jewish family, she became the second woman to earn a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna. She studied under Nobel laureate and quantum theory founder Max Planck in Berlin, and met chemist Otto Hahn, with whom she conducted future research and discovered several new isotopes. While she was protected by her Austrian citizenship when Adolf Hitler rose to power, she was still in danger, and eventually fled to Stockholm. She maintained contact with Hahn and in 1913 secretly met with him in Copenhagen to plan a round of experiments. With Meitner’s guidance, Hahn and partner Fritz Strassmann were able to discover nuclear fission – a scientific breakthrough that earned Hahn the Nobel Prize in chemistry. She also never lost her humanity and moral center: she was invited to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, but emphatically refused, declaring, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992)
A professor of mathematics at Vassar and New York University, Grace Hopper brought her skill with numbers to national service entered the U.S. Naval Service (the WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943. She served as one of the first programmers on the Harvard Mark I computer, and worked on the two successive models (fun factoid: while working on the Mark II, she discovered a moth stuck in a relay that was slowing down operation. The term “computer bug” can’t be definitely attributed to her, but she certainly popularized the term). She, along with some colleagues, developed the oldest programming language, Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL); which was the language of 80% of the world’s businesses in 1997. One of her most notable contributions to the field of computing was the invention of the first compiler in 1952, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer.
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Chien-Shung Wu (1912 – 1997)