Category Archives: Women in Science

It’s Up To The Women

With apologies to Eleanor Roosevelt, whose book of that name, she hoped, would spur females to get involved in politics. They’ve done so, to a certain extent. Now, it’s time for women to elbow their way into another field.

How many of these names do you recognize? (And before you start, you don’t have ID them to any degree of precision; just what their general profession was.)

  • Mary Elliot Hill
  • Lise Meitner
  • Jewell Plummer Cobb
  • Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
  • Carolyn Porco
  • Rosalind Franklin
  • Emmanuelle Charpentier
  • Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
  • Joy Buolamwini
  • Émilie du Châtelet
  • Shubha Tole
  • Mary Calkins

I’d guess if any of these names is familiar, it would be that of Rosalind Franklin. Maybe Lise Meitner. Otherwise, I’ll wager the vast majority of Pencillistas won’t get who these people are. And, for pity’s sake, Pencillistas are the hippest, coolest, most well-read, brightest bulbs in the box, here or anywhere else for that matter. When a Pencillista doesn’t know who you are, you are, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.

Only the people named above certainly do/did exist. Not only that, they contributed greatly to the advancement of the human species. Without them, we’d be in a bit of a pickle, grossly uniformed about the nature of the universe, sans one of humankind’s most depended-upon materials, unable to ward off the effects of one of the most virulent cancers, lacking in synthetic penicillin and, potentially, at the mercy of the worst aspects of Artificial Intelligence, among many other effects these people have either instituted, discovered, or averted.

Joy Buolamwini

They are all women and they are/were all scientists. Everybody knows who Einstein, Newton, and Darwin were. Who — besides me; and I had to look up all but a couple of the names — knows who Joy Buolamwini is. Or who Jewel Plummer Cobb was? The only distinction between them and the aforementioned scientific titans was the fact that these virtually anonymous figures possessed vaginas rather than penises.

That’s all it comes down to really. We’d love to think the smartest among us might also be the most forward-thinking, the most open to diversity within their ranks. But hell no. Take the case of Rosalind Franklin, for instance. She should have shared in the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. Dang it, she had as much to do with identifying and describing the DNA molecule as any of those three but her genitalia made her ignorable to them. They — especially Watson — stood on their heads to deprive her of her rightful share of laurels for figuring out just exactly how the basic building block of life is structured. In fact, in Watson’s famous memoir, The Double Helix, he complained that Franklin was difficult to work with and he criticized her for not caring about her appearance enough.

Rosalind Franklin (Image: Vittorio Luzzati)

Yeah, sure. Remember how the world’s scientists didn’t take Einstein seriously because he refused to run a comb through his hair? Or how the members of the Royal Society snubbed Newton because he was essentially a pathological loner?

Here’s a truth: the smartest man in the world has about the same chance of being an insufferable jerk as the least educated.

Even in this supposedly enlightened era, when women are running countries, making movies, writing novels, heading corporations, running police departments, rapping the gavel as Speaker of the House, and doing anything males can do, fewer than than three in ten of the world’s research scientists and academicians are women.

Could that be one reason why so many of our scientific advancements of the past couple of centuries have been things like bombs that blow up entire cities, chemical compounds that foul our groundwater, motors that turn our air into unbreathable muck, and prescription drugs that turn us into addicted zombies? Perhaps a scientific community made up entirely of women the last 200 or so years might have put us in the same perilous state we find ourselves now. That’s something for college sophomores to discuss while passing around bongs and copies of The Bell Jar. What we do know is it’s been guys in white lab coats who’ve put the planet on the brink of catastrophe. Well, they and other males in a hundred and fifty other vocations, to be sure.

Perhaps in another hundred years (we should live so long) the aforementioned gender ratio in science will be reversed. Perhaps the women-dominated STEM field of the future will adopt a more caring, concerned outlook regarding its research and discoveries. It wouldn’t at all hurt us to find out.

A population of primarily-female scientists certainly couldn’t harm us and our planet any more than the traditional, guy-dominated tribe already has.

In any case, let me hip you to three women who are interpreting and explaining the world of science to the general public these days. Two are authors and one a podcast maven. Their respective takes on the world of science is both refreshing and needed. So, here they are:

Natalie Angier: She’s the author of what I consider to be my most indispensable book on science, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Notice that? She describes the fundamental tenets of science as “beautiful” — and they are. Yet, how many men have waxed so poetically about, say, chemistry or physics? A few decades back, when Carl Sagan wrote his iconic The Dragons of Eden and Broca’s Brain, critics called him science’s first poet. If so, then Angier is science poetry’s Bob Dylan. She transforms what could have been a dry recitation of facts into multi-layered, complex love song. Yep, she loves science — and she’s smart as a whip. She’s also written three other science books, including her expert take on the female gender, Woman: An Intimate Geography. Angier has been a New York Times science writer since 1990 and won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting for numerous articles on science.

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Mary Roach: If Natalie Angier is science’s poet, Roach is its standup comic. Or, more accurately, the nation’s high school science teacher whose class everybody wanted to take. She views science through an ironic, amused lens, explaining and revealing with humor and a heavy dosage of irreverence. Her most recent book is Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, in which she addresses the collisions between humans and critters, and between us and potentially toxic flora and natural substances. She begins by telling us that several centuries ago when, say, a bear mauled a hapless wandered in the woods, the bear could be tried in a court of law! Bears, of course, aren’t brought up on charges anymore but they still occasionally rip someone to shreds. Roach also has written a shelf’s worth of engaging, informative books including:

  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
  • Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
  • Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

All these titles are available through her website.

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The youngest of this trio is Rebecca Watson, host of the regular podcast on her site, Skepchick. Watson founded Skepchick in 2005 in order to, in her words, “discuss science and skepticism from a woman’s perspective.” An aspiring magician throughout college, she was inspired to get into the the science and skepticism business after meeting James Randi, “The Amazing Randi,” noted illusionist and myth/magic debunker. With the rise of the internet of the last quarter century, scientific misinformation and downright quackery and fraud have spread like so many coronavirus variants among the unvaccinated. Watson is never lacking for new topics to tackle and bunkum to refute.

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Bottom line: Conventional wisdom holds that science will save us from ourselves. Perhaps a better — or at least alternative — way of looking at it is women scientists ought to be given a shot to come to humanity’s, and the Earth’s, rescue. And, just as Important, they ought to take that shot.

 

 

 

 

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